Story By Hilary Brady
Photography By John Urban

How do you give back to the members of the armed forces, the ones who give their all for so little in return? For Alecia Geddings, an Oak Island-based wedding planner and photographer, the answer was easy. Give them a wedding.

Geddings launched Operation Marry Me Military (OMMM) in 2011. Her program invites active military brides and/or grooms to enter to win a free wedding to be held, appropriately, on Veteran’s Day.

Geddings comes from a family with roots in the local law enforcement industry. With a respect for those who serve and a passion for creating and capturing special events, her program challenges the local community and satisfies a need to support the public service industry that runs deep in her veins.

When announced, Geddings’ concept spread like wildfire throughout the event industry and the general public. One of the first people to hear of the program and to jump on board was Brunswick County event planner Brittany Adams-O’Neil.

“I saw Alecia on the news,” says Adams-O’Neil. “She was challenging everybody to get involved. Her vision was not to just give one wedding but to get all counties in North Carolina involved. And it was awesome. The idea was brilliant; she’s brilliant. I contacted her immediately and said I wanted in.”

Adams-O’Neil wasn’t alone. Six additional planners from counties across North Carolina also contacted Geddings and committed to the program. The planning process for the event organizers began in June as soon as they joined OMMM, offering only a short time to get vendors on board for their weddings to be held just five months later on 11-11-11.

“I typically take a year to plan a wedding,” says Adams-O’Neil. “So this one was tough.”

But when Adams-O’Neil’s vendors heard about the program and what she needed, they were eager to assist.

“All of my core vendors said yes,” she says. “I don’t ever ask them for a lot so they said that they would do it no problem, whatever I needed.”

Adams-O’Neil was challenged by the OMMM requirement to keep all vendors local to the host county; all vendors for her wedding had to serve the southern Brunswick area. Event planners typically pull resources from all over the region in order to offer the bride and groom exactly what they need.

“So I had to contact some vendors that I didn’t know so well, which was different,” says Adams-O’Neil. “Some people heard ‘donate’ and rushed off the phone. Others, though, when they heard what OMMM was all about, they agreed to help right away. They wanted to be involved, to support the program because they believed in what we were doing and they wanted to make a difference. The team that we created, every one of them was heartfelt about the armed forces and felt that donating their services was the least that they could do. There is no way we could have created such an amazing event without those vendors.”

Everyone Wins

Event planners from all seven counties worked hard from June through August to develop a vendor team and create a wedding package that would “wow” the winners.

In the meantime, bride/groom applications slowly arrived on Geddings’ desk.

“We had about 14 entries I think,” says Adams-O’Neil, “which is great considering this was our first year. I don’t think Alecia expected to get as much feedback as we did.”

Applicants were asked to submit their story, explaining why they think they deserve a free wedding. A panel of four judges, one from each branch of the military, selected seven winners, equal to the number of event planners available. The first place winner was given to Geddings in Oak Island and the second place winner to Adams-O’Neil in Ocean Isle. Third through seventh place winners were distributed to event planners in different counties in the order of which they committed to OMMM.

“The application process was difficult,” explains Adams-O’Neil. “It was really hard to choose winners because they all deserve a wedding. We wanted everyone to win, so we decided to offer a free ceremony to the remaining seven couples that did not get selected.”

Geddings’ business, Oak Island Photography and Weddings, specializes in “one-stop-shop ceremonies,” as Adams-O’Neil describes it. She offers clients a venue, music, photography, everything needed under one roof. You could call it the “Vegas of Oak Island,” but with charming chapels and beautiful water views instead of velvet pews and an Elvis officiant.

So the opportunity to offer the seven couples a simple and all-inclusive ceremony was a natural fit for Geddings.

“Two of the seven couples participated,” says Adams-O’Neil. “Alecia had them come down to a really beautiful and intimate chapel in Southport, she lined them up, sent them down the aisle, then they hung out and got photos taken. It was really pretty cool.”

It all pays off

The couple selected as the OMMM runner up, Manisha and Jake Henthorn, was presented with a free wedding coordinated by Adams-O’Neil, who represented southern Brunswick County. She was thrilled with her team and even more excited to get moving on the details of planning a perfect wedding for a deserving couple.

By the time the planners received their bride/groom assignments, all vendors for the weddings had been selected. Most planners, at this point, handed the couples a vendor list and let them meet with the businesses on their own to discuss details. Adams-O’Neil, however, wanted to ensure that they felt comfortable and that every bit of their personality was incorporated into the wedding.

“I typically work very closely with my clients,” explains Adams-O’Neil. “It’s really important for a bride and groom to be a big part of their wedding. So I took Manisha and Jake around to tastings and to choose flowers, to design save the dates and invitations. I also secured engagement photos for them, which I think was unique to just our wedding.”

Adams-O’Neil remembers Manisha and Jake as being reserved at first.

“I think it was overwhelming to them,” she says. “They had only been engaged for a short while and I don’t think they really thought they would win. After a few visits, though, the nerves wore off and they became really involved.”

And it all paid off. The wedding was spectacular. Designed with a Beauty and the Beast theme in mind, the couple was treated to an elaborately romantic wedding valued at $65,000.

“Working with Brittany of OMMM was amazing!” says Manisha. “Brittany made sure that Jake and I made all the decisions for everything — food, flowers, colors, cake, etcetera. She was creative, energetic and exciting to work with. She made the planning process fun and stress free!”

Manisha and Jake were treated to more than just a wedding day. The event site, Knots Landing in Ocean Isle Beach, hosted the couple for a full week. The wedding itself featured intimate details in the decor including chandeliers on the table, oil lamps, candelabras and mirrors everywhere.

“I think the most memorable part of the wedding was seeing the result of all the vendors’ hard work,” recalls Manisha. “I remember the wedding day and how everything flowed so nicely and how it truly turned out be a dream wedding for me.”

“They needed a lush, rich elegant wedding,” says Adams-O’Neil. “It was the vibe we got from them. No mason jars and hydrangeas for these guys! It was beautiful and I made lifelong friends through the process. Manisha and Jake are part of my family now. They got stuck in my life for the rest of it whether they like it or not.”

Bigger and Better for 2012

With one spectacular series of weddings behind them, OMMM is now hustling and bustling to plan yet another round of weddings for 2012.

“If I could say one thing to people thinking about applying, I would say to go ahead and send your story in,” says Manisha. “There is never a story that is insignificant to tell in the military. I would say be honest and be proud of serving in the military and just share that with OMMM even if you don’t win.”

Adams-O’Neil and her team are looking forward to making Operation Marry Me Military South Brunswick County (OMMMSBC) bigger and better than last year.

“I’m always looking for ways to improve my events,” she says. “I’m most excited about taking what we learned from the first event and the vendor relationships that we built and taking it to the next level. I’m also really excited about seeing how many more counties can get on board.”

OMMM has already secured three additional counties for the 2012 program, including Mecklenburg, a huge coup in Brittany’s opinion.

Through the surge of statewide participation alone, it’s clear that OMMM is a winner. It brings awareness of local vendors, and it develops a sense of community among businesses. Perhaps the most valuable part of the experience, however, is how the program changes the lives of the military couples and affects the hearts of the people involved.

“With this event, I left humbled and overwhelmed,” says Adams-O’Neil. “I feel a new connection with the military. As a wedding planner, you get used to the same things. When you are exposed to something like this, it is surreal.”

Adams-O’Neil says there are two things she’ll never forget about the OMMM wedding: “One, when the groom saluted his father-in-law at the ceremony as he was giving his daughter away. And, two, at the rehearsal dinner. Manisha and Jake were thanking everyone; they had tears in their eyes the whole time. It was the first time I had seen them that open, you could see how truly thankful they were. When she started thanking me, I told her that she had to stop. ‘If I start crying, we’re done,’ I said. ‘I have a wedding to do tomorrow!’”