Like a "fairy godmother," Debbie Hicks can transform a world-weary woman into a princess.
Yet it wasn't by magic that hundreds of wedding gowns came into Hicks' possession. The 59-year-old house cleaner has solicited donations of dresses for the past seven years to stock her Heaven Sent Bridal Boutique, a charity that lends bridal finery free of charge to anyone in need.
"They come in, and their eyes light up," says Hicks. "This is their dream come true."
Gauzy and lacy, beaded and embroidered, snow-white or rich cream, 200 dresses await bedazzled brides at Hicks' Medford home. When Hicks moved in October, she dedicated an entire room inside her modest abode to house the collection, which also includes veils and other accessories.
"I have so many more dresses now," says Hicks, who started the project with 70 gowns.
It's Heaven Sent's fifth incarnation since Hicks rented a Jacksonville storefront in 2002. Rich in regalia but short on funds, Hicks moved her "ministry" to Medford's New Song Church. When the church needed to reclaim its room, Hicks stored the gowns in a friend's vacant mobile home before transferring them to her Medford garage for two years. Hicks' new boudoir allows brides to browse and try on gowns until they find the perfect one.
"The majority of dresses fit like a glove," Hicks says.
If they don't, Hicks allows borrowers to alter her gowns and even bestows them months in advance of the big day. Lacking a lending criteria, Hicks doesn't inquire after borrowers' incomes or even record their addresses. Hicks used to ask brides to clean the gowns before bringing them back, but she doesn't even bother with that pretense anymore. Only a handful of dresses weren't returned over the past seven years.
"The most important things are the people, not the clothes," Hicks says. "Sometimes the dresses come back, and sometimes they don't, but that's OK 'cause new ones are always coming in."
Accepting an average of two new gowns each month, Hicks' charity largely relies on word of mouth. A local dry-cleaner sent Hicks nine dresses that had gone unclaimed for more than a year. Last year, another woman donated seven frocks, all with the price tags still attached.
Hicks says she feared Medford's embrace of David's Bridal — with its dresses priced "so cheap" — would put her out of business. If anything, the retailer's local presence has generated more donations over the past four years, Hicks says. She arrayed at least 50 brides last summer, Hicks adds.
"After January, it just really picks up," says Hicks, who plans to take appointments every Saturday between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.
"Girls come out of the woodwork, really."
Jenni Petersen, 27, of Trail, planned to bequeath her bridal attire after attending the summer nuptials of a bride who wore one of Hicks' gowns. Petersen heard of the garment's unlikely origins, along with a tale of the couple's career hardships, which postponed the wedding date at least once. Petersen says she gathered the Medford ceremony wouldn't have taken place without the loan of a dress.
"I thought it was a really good cause ... with the economy the way that it is ... if someone else can use it," Petersen says.
A traditional, white dress with a tank-top bodice, full skirt and sequin details, Petersen's bridal costume has languished in a garment bag since her 2006 wintertime wedding at Diamond Lake. Petersen also has two veils, a slip and ring bearer's pillow to donate, without a second thought for the fancy apparel.
"There's no use in holding on to it," Petersen says. "I have the pictures; I don't want to keep it."
"If they're willing to share, then the blessing continues," Hicks says, of women like Petersen.
Hicks, herself, relied on the generosity of a co-worker, who furnished the gown for Hicks' 1986 wedding. But instead of best wishes, her friend admonished Hicks to return the dress spotlessly clean. The demise of her 21-year marriage only strengthened Hicks' resolve to orchestrate happy endings for other brides.
"You deserve to be treated like this," Hicks says, "not just on your wedding day, but your whole marriage."
For more information on Heaven Sent Bridal Boutique or to schedule an appointment, contact Debbie Hicks at 541-773-3088.