HIGHLAND — The first of several brides Tuesday at Elegance Wedding and Evening Wear were trying on wedding dresses in hopes of finding the perfect one. It's an intense mission but for these particular brides, theirs is little bit sweeter because of their jobs.

Since 2008, Brides Across America has played a role in making dreams come true by giving a military or first responder bride a free wedding gown during "Operation Wedding Gown."

Charlott Sitarski, owner of the boutique at 2820 Highway Ave., has owned Elegance for about 19 years and has given away gowns for eight.

"It's just an awesome event to participate in," Sitarski said. "It gives us a way to give back to those who serve and protect us on a regular basis. It's just a way to say thank you and we appreciate all that you do."

This year, Elegance will give away nine dresses for their July event. Sitarski said the boutique hosts the dress giveaway twice a year and the next event will be in November around Veterans Day.

"We've chosen gowns within our store that we feel are similar to what they're looking at and then have the select gowns for them to choose from," Sitarski said. "They're all donated from us."

The boutique's consultants bring out dresses based off the size and preferences of the brides. In addition to the gowns, the boutique also offered accessories to the brides at a discounted rate.

"It's not intended to take away from their bridal shopping experience, this is just to add to it," Sitarski said. "They get treated like a bride and then they get a free gown along with it."

Cakes by Karen in Highland provided the boutique with cupcakes and Munster's Dixon's Florist donated a floral bouquet for each of the brides.

To join the event, brides register with the national organization and are asked to schedule an appointment with the boutique so that "we can give them the one-on-one attention and treat them like a bride," Sitarski said. 

Retired police Officer Bernard Begeske tagged along to his daughter Alicia Begeske's appointment at the boutique. Her mother was unable to attend, and Alicia is keeping her chosen dress a surprise for the rest of the bridal party.

"This is great, this is really an awesome opportunity," her dad said. "Weddings are so stressful for brides, so something like this that this organization is doing is a great relief. It takes off a lot of pressure."

Alicia Begeske, who is from Griffith, has been a paramedic for a year and is getting married next July to Steve Cremonesi, who is also a first responder. Bernard Begeske offered comments to his daughter on dress color, train length and even about her preferences for more "bling."

Near the end of her appointment, she was still deciding between two dresses. Her father told her his choice was "all that and a bag of chips."

Bride Diana Ackerman also searched for a dress with that extra "something." Her mother, Mary Fry, watched as Ackerman tried on a dress complete with a featherlike bottom and commented it was "something only a paramedic would wear."

Fry and her daughter traveled from Grand Junction, Michigan, to the boutique. Ackerman, a paramedic, worked until 4 a.m. the morning of her appointment. Fry is a retired paramedic and said the job's pay and hours aren't the best, but "they can never take away the passion or love for the job."

Ackerman has been a paramedic for 14 years and her future husband, Kevin Hawley, is retired from the military. They're getting married next March.

Ackerman found her wedding dress during the appointment and was moved to emotion in her decision. 

"It's a load off my shoulders because I am a paramedic, and we don't make that much money," Ackerman said. "I work 90 hours a week, and we're paying for the wedding in cash. So it's one less thing (to worry about)."

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Emily covers Porter County news and features for The Times. A transplant from NW Ohio to NWI, Emily loves talking to people and hearing their stories. She graduated from the University of Toledo in 2018 and believes all dogs are good dogs.