“People were in disbelief that the dresses were free. Not only that, but the dresses were theirs to keep. They weren’t just borrowing them.”
— Yvonne Coombes, CEO of ODYD
Like many brides, Jessica Johnson picked out her wedding dress with her mom, mother-in-law and best friend. However, she didn’t say “yes to the dress” in a bridal boutique. Johnson chose her wedding dress over Zoom.
“It was perfect. The dress was everything I’d hoped for,” she said.
Not only that, the “perfect dress” was free, thanks to Operation Deploy Your Dress (ODYD), a nonprofit Johnson was familiar with as the daughter of an Army sergeant major. Her father has served almost 30 years.
“My mom has volunteered with ODYD throughout the years, and I donated a lot of my homecoming and prom dresses,” she said.
The nonprofit’s mission is to help offset the high cost of attending formal military functions by providing (or “deploying,” as the organization calls it) dresses from 13 brick and mortar shops at Army and joint installations across the U.S. and in Germany. The ODYD shops are run solely by military spouse volunteers. Dresses are distributed to all branches and all ranks.
Now in its sixth year, ODYD was never supposed to be a nonprofit.
“It was just supposed to be a weekend project to help our community,” said ODYD CEO and co-founder Yvonne Coombes, an Army spouse who was stationed at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, at the time.
“Units were having balls; a few of us spouses came up with the idea for a dress swap. We hoped to collect a couple hundred dresses,” she said.
The group of Army spouses smashed that goal, collecting more than 3,000 dresses.
It didn’t take long to realize they were on to something.
“The need was there. And the desire to support this was there,” Coombes said.
When she thinks back to that first dress swap, Coombes said people couldn’t believe the dresses were free.
“Not only that, but the dresses were theirs to keep,” she said. “They weren’t just borrowing them. It was so exciting to see that our efforts were so appreciated.”
Since that first effort six years ago, ODYD has deployed more than 16,500 gowns, saving military families nearly $2 million, collectively, by the organization’s estimate.
For several years, ODYD turned away donations of wedding dresses. After all —
“Most of our dress recipients for military balls and other formal events were already married,” Coombes said.
But in 2021, the organization got an offer it couldn’t refuse.
“A dress company offered us 250 brand new, unaltered wedding dresses,” she said. “What an opportunity!”
ODYD Bridal Edition launched last June with the help of Monte Durham, the famed bridal consultant from the television reality show “Say Yes To The Dress – Atlanta,” to make the announcement.
ODYD began accepting applications. Brides-to-be were eligible if they were the child or fiancée of an active-duty service member.
Johnson was both and jumped on the opportunity when she learned about the new bridal program.
“My mom sent me the link,” Johnson said. So, I applied to get a free wedding dress, and I was selected!”
Johnson married her husband, Michael Crowe, an Army staff sergeant, in March 2021. It was a small elopement given the COVID-19 pandemic and limitations on travel and large events.
“Eloping was what was best for us at the time, but we hoped the day would come where we’d be able to celebrate with friends and family,” she said. “We wanted to have that special moment. I wanted to have my dad walk me down the aisle.”
Shortly after she eloped, Johnson applied for ODYD’s bridal program.
“I got an email letting me know I was selected, and it was so exciting.”
Once brides-to-be are accepted into the program, they gain access to a Facebook page where they can preview the dresses available to them ahead of their virtual styling appointment.
“I had my eye on a dress from the beginning, but you select a dress based on your wedding date, so I was nervous that particular dress wasn’t going to be available when I did my styling appointment,” Johnson said.
Johnson was paired with virtual bridal stylist Flor Anchondo. She was an Army spouse of 27 years who began volunteering with ODYD while stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state, eventually becoming the shop manager.
“They were looking for volunteers, and I thought it would be something fun to do, and I just immediately fell in love with it,” she said.
But when Anchondo PCSed to Fort Lee in Virginia, there wasn’t an ODYD shop where she could volunteer.
“I still wanted to be involved, so when they started the bridal program and asked me if I wanted to help out, I said, ‘Of course!’ I was ecstatic to do so,” Anchondo said.
After some training, she began as an ODYD bridal consultant.
“They set up styling sessions for brides who have been accepted into the program, and I meet with them on Zoom. Some invite their families and friends to join us and to have that experience,” she said.
When Anchondo met with Johnson for her virtual styling appointment, they discussed Johnson’s style preferences, the venue and the type of wedding she was having.
“Then we go over the dresses available in their size range,” Anchondo said.
And as luck would have it, “the dress” Johnson had her eye on from the start was still available.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Johnson said. “I picked out the dress in August, it was sent to me a few weeks later and I had virtual fitting appointments in October. After the alterations, it fit me like a glove.”
Johnson and her groom said “I do” (again) on Feb. 12, 2022, in Savannah, Georgia.
“It was a huge blessing to be gifted a wedding gown — and not have to worry about that expense on top of all of those other wedding expenses,” Johnson said.
But Coombes said it’s about more than just a dress.
“It’s really special to be the organization that welcomes a new military spouse to the greater military family.”
For more information about ODYD – Bridal or to apply to the program visit https://operationdeployyourdress.org/odyd-bridal.