When the pandemic upended their wedding plans, Emily Bugg and Billy Lewis tied the knot at Chicago’s city hall last month instead.
But there was still one piece of unfinished business: What to do about their $5,000 nonrefundable catering deposit? The newlyweds decided to turn it into 200 Thanksgiving dinners for people with severe mental illness.
“This just seemed like a good way to make the best of a bad situation,” said Bugg, 33, an outreach worker at Thresholds, a nonprofit dedicated to helping people with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and other psychiatric conditions.
In the week leading up to Thanksgiving, dozens of Thresholds clients received a boxed dinner of turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes, green beans and other fixings from Big Delicious Planet, a high-end Chicago-based caterer.
Bugg and Lewis, 34, got engaged in July 2019 and began planning their wedding. They had booked a hip Chicago event space, a fun DJ and a photographer. Bugg purchased her gown, a slip crepe dress with spaghetti straps, and their guest list topped 150 people.
But as the pandemic stretched on, they went to Plan B, first scaling down their guest list to 50. Then, Plan C: changing dates. And finally Plan D: canceling altogether and heading to city hall on Oct. 1.
The couple, who met on the online dating app Bumble in 2017, decided they’d rather go ahead and get married than wait for a seemingly never-ending pandemic to subside.
“We had come to a place where we had some big decisions to make,” said Lewis, who works for an advertising technology company. “We decided to just go ahead and get on with our lives.”
As for the nonrefundable deposits and purchases, the newlyweds chalked them up to the pandemic. The bridal gown — still in its garment bag and hanging in the closet — was a lost cause. So was the check that went to the DJ. The venue, Salvage One, a 60,000-square-foot warehouse, agreed to put the couple’s deposit toward a future event for the Epilepsy Foundation, a cause Bugg has a connection to. The photographer, Sophie Cazottes, offered to document the nuptials at city hall.
But there was still the thorny issue of the $500 catering deposit.
Bugg hatched a plan: Have the wedding banquet morph into Thanksgiving for clients at Thresholds, where she has worked for nine years.
Jane Himmel, owner of Jane Himmel Weddings and Special Events in Chicago, said most wedding vendors have a nonrefundable deposit or retainer policy, but most also try to find mutually agreeable alternatives, such as allowing the deposit to roll over to the next calendar year or swapping wedding photos for family portraits.
As for charitable gifts, she knows one bride and groom who donated all their floral arrangements to area nursing homes. Because weddings look so different in the pandemic, she said she thinks these gestures will become more common.
“At the beginning of the pandemic, it was just total chaos. But as it stretched on, people started adjusting to reality,” said Himmel, who has spent more than two decades in the wedding business. “There’s been a mind shift. Couples want to turn lemons into lemonade.”
That was certainly on Bugg’s mind when she brought the Thanksgiving proposal to Heidi Moorman Coudal, owner of Big Delicious Planet, who instantly embraced the idea. So did Mark Ishaug, CEO of Thresholds, which serves about 8,000 clients with mental health problems in Chicago.
The holidays are already tough on people with mental illnesses and substance use problems, and the pandemic and associated isolation have only exacerbated both, he said.
Thresholds has stepped up ways to reach people, by launching mobile medication vans and adding more telehealth slots. But just as there’s been a surge in the need for services, donations have plummeted. For example, the annual Thresholds gala that typically raises about $40,000 for holiday meals was replaced by a virtual event that brought in only about $18,000, Ishaug said.
He said he’s grateful for the donated boxed Thanksgiving meals, especially because Thresholds’ usual communal dinners are canceled because of COVID-19. “We hope they can still feel the warmth of knowing that we care about them. These small moments of connection are what’s keeping us going during these difficult months.”
This type of giving spurs “copycat activities,” Ishaug said. “Other people start asking themselves, ‘What can I do for others at Thanksgiving?’ There’s been so much anger and fear this past year … and then we have something like this from Emily and Billy, which is just about humanity and kindness.”
The newlyweds said it would have been fun to celebrate with loved ones, but the pandemic has shined a light on many things they are grateful for: They both are healthy and employed, and they recently rescued a second dog — a Labrador mix named June.
“And I’m lucky to have a wife who is clever and thoughtful enough to change a not-so-good situation into something positive for a lot of people,” Lewis said.
As for Bugg, she gets a twinge when she sees her unworn dress. Even though she didn’t get her moment down the aisle, she received something more meaningful — from friends, family and strangers alike:
“So many people have told me this was a beautiful way to start our married life together.”