Hannah Yoon / Freelancer
Nicola Topsom stands by dresses at Betroth Bridal Shop in Cambridge. The shop donated 200 dresses to Topsom’s Floriana Wedding Project, which allows Hatian brides affordable dresses.
Church, check. Photographer, check. Fifty wedding dresses, check.
If arranging one wedding is nerve-wracking, imagine helping to organize a massive ceremony and reception for 50 couples and their guests on a shoestring budget in Haiti.
On Feb. 6, Burlington resident Nicola Topsom will be volunteering in Cap-Haitien to help create a beautiful day for the 50 couples. She and others have been raising funds so that the couples can afford a wedding celebration.
“It’s an opportunity to see something wonderful and happy in a country that has had more than its share of sadness,” says Topsom.
Topsom, 41, is no stranger to Haiti or weddings. She’s the founder of the Floriana Wedding Project, a small jobs program she started in Port-au-Prince.
She collects donated bride and bridesmaids dresses and wedding accessories and ships them to Haiti where her staff sells or rents them at two “pay-what-you-can” stores. The staff worker keeps the proceeds of the sale or rental.
“It’s a brilliant idea. A hand up, not a hand out,” says Art Duerksen, a field operations co-ordinator with the Hamilton-based charity Joy and Hope of Haiti.
One of Joy and Hope’s partners in Haiti, Pastor Vilmer Pauls, had 50 couples who wanted to marry but couldn’t afford it. When Joy and Hope officials heard the pastor’s idea — save money with one jumbo ceremony and party — they asked Topsom to help make it happen.
With a few days left, it’s coming together: rings have been donated; wedding dresses will be loaned free; a photographer has volunteered services. Topsam had a baker in Haiti lined up but no money for ingredients, until a late donation came through for a three-tier wedding cake and slab cakes for the guests. “Now I can order the cake. That one was keeping me up at night,” says Topsom.
She still needs funds for printer ink, bus fare for rural guests, gas to get her small truck full of goods to Cap-Haitien and more food for the reception buffet. Local women will prepare the traditional Haitian dishes. They’re expecting about 500 guests.
“It’s all been fairly last minute,” says Topsom. “But in Haiti things happen at the last minute anyway.”
This will be Topsom’s eleventh trip to Haiti. She first went in 2006, taking a church youth group to do volunteer work. In 2010, she and her husband, Jason, adopted their second daughter, Divna, an 18-month-old earthquake evacuee from Haiti.
Floriana Wedding Project
Nicola Topsom’s daughter Divna, adopted from Haiti, models a hat and veil donated to the Floriana Wedding Project.
Topsom wanted to create jobs to help keep families together in the impoverished country. Since weddings are such a big deal there, she says, she latched onto the bridal gown and dresses idea. She named it the Floriana Wedding Project after the town in Malta where her father was born.
In 2014, Topsom, who works night shifts as a personal support worker in palliative care, asked for wedding, bridesmaids and party dress donations on social media. “We were overwhelmed with donations from coast to coast,” says Topsom, She estimates they’ve received more than 250 wedding dresses — everything from 1940s handmade satin ones to Vera Wang and Maggie Sottero designer gowns — and about 500 bridesmaids and party dresses.
Floriana Wedding Project
Fernanda, a seamstress with the Floriana Wedding Project, sends her three daughters to school with money she makes turning damaged dresses into items to sell using this pedal operated sewing machine.
They’ve come from individuals, bridal and consignment shops. Betroth, a wedding store in Cambridge, has given them more than 150 dresses.
Topsom has stashed many donations in a friend’s basement, but needs a more permanent storage space. Twice a year, she ships all that taffeta and tulle and other goods for free with the Joy and Hope charity. Through fundraising, the Floriana Wedding Project pays for the rent at the two shops she opened.
The Haitian staff has to attract people to the shops and sell or rent the items for what the customer can pay. A party dress usually goes for between $2 to $4 (U.S.) and a wedding dress rents for between $10 and $20 (U.S.).
“Negotiating the price can take half an hour,” says Topsom.
Floriana Wedding Project
Wadley Marcelin, a manager with the Floriana Wedding Project, helps a customer named Eunice find a dress in one of the project’s shops in Port au Prince.
The seller keeps the proceeds. At the moment, there are four staff who are helping to support about 40 family members, says Topsom.
But Topsom has more plans. She’d like to set up a barbershop and also a sewing business. She’d like to see one side of a shop filled with women on sewing machines doing alterations, making school uniforms, transforming damaged dresses into other items for sale.
“The options for single mothers in Haiti are horrific,” says Topsom. “But a sewing machine could change her life. The potential to save people is huge. I could get very passionate about sewing machines.”