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Charity honeymooners say 'I do' for good

After Ben DiFrancesco and Melissa Jen tie the knot on June 11, they'll jet to the tropics, but not just for the beach. After a week in Costa Rica, they're going to Honduras with a group they put together for Habitat for Humanity. For these two, getting married is about giving back.

Since we didn't get to work on Wednesday, Luis took us to Fundacion de Amor y Vida, an orphanage for HIV infected Children. We could only stay for an hour, but it made the day totally worth it! Check out more about the orphanage at http://www.amoryvidahn.com

"We’ve worked with Habitat before," said Jen, "and during our engagement, as we talked about the future together, we said, 'Wouldn't it be awesome if we could do a Habitat trip or a similar trip every year?'"

When it came down to scheduling that yearly service project and a honeymoon, the Philadelphia couple, both 25, decided to combine them. They’re part of a special category of brides and grooms, those who make sure their big day benefits others.

There are lots of ways to make a wedding charitable. In lieu of gifts, couples can register for charity donations at any number of websites. Some catering companies will work with local food banks to distribute leftovers. Wedding gowns can be donated to fundraising sales held by Brides Against Breast Cancer (www.bridesagainstbreastcancer.org).

But the most hands-on givers are the volunteers. While some honeymooners might cringe at the idea of missing their mai tais and massages, for others volunteering is the perfect way to start a life together.

  • Slideshow Photos

    Chic summer bridal gowns

    Take a look at gorgeous wedding dresses from mass market retailers, including Costco, J.Crew and more.

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    Chic within your reach -

    Boutiques are no longer the go-to stop for bridal gowns. These days, you can hit up your local mall – or even Costco – to find the wedding dress of your dreams.

    With fashion guidance from TODAY style editor and Bobbie.com’s Bobbie Thomas, take a look at gowns from mass-market retailers that are redefining the bridal industry market.

    Ann Taylor: Rose Petal Wedding Gown, $750
    Flirty florals are always eye-catching: Ann Taylor's silk rose petal wedding gown is covered in appliquéd petals for a mesmerizing effect.

    Bobbie Thomas' take: "This soft and fluttery style is great for a bride who wants to add a little curve to her shape."

    Ann Taylor / Ann Taylor
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    Ann Taylor: Embroidered Tea Length Dress, $695 -

    Who says it has to be long? Ann Taylor's short, strapless dress features a full crinkle skirt for a play of textures and proportions.

    Bobbie Thomas' take: "A darling combination of sweet and girly – perfect for a day wedding."

    Ann Taylor / Ann Taylor
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    BHLDN: Burnished Organza Gown, $1,400 -

    Take it up a notch with BHLDN's strapless bohemian gown, featuring sparkling bronze sequins at the top and five dramatic tiers of embroidered silk on the bottom.

    Bobbie Thomas' take: "Interesting details and elements make this gown perfect for the bride who wants something different."

    BHLDN / BHLDN
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    BHLDN: Sweeping Tafetta Ball Gown, $1,600 -

    If you're looking for sophisticated drama, BHLDN's taffeta gown features a dramatically scooped neckline and a majestic A-line skirt. Not that it's without any whimsy: the dress also comes with handy side pockets.

    Bobbie Thomas' take: "For the belle of the ball, this grand gown makes a statement without looking over-the-top."

    BHLDN / BHLDN
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    BHLDN: Greenbow Lace Gown, $600 -

    For the hippie in love, Tracy Reese's romantic crocheted lace dress comes dotted with globe buttons and encircled by grosgrain at the waist.

    Bobbie Thomas' take: "Vintage inspired with a romantic bohemian appeal, fantastic for a spring/summer outdoor affair or country wedding."

    BHLDN / BHLDN
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    Kirstie Kelly for Costco: English Net & Alencon Lace, $999.99 -

    Yes, you can get your gown at Costco! While stocking up on a year's supply of toilet paper, you can also purchase this Kirstie Kelly Alencon lace trumpet gown with an elegant sweetheart neckline.

    Bobbie Thomas' take: "A great option with a universally flattering neckline and sophisticated details."

    Kelly for Costco / Kelly for Costco
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    Kirstie Kelly for Costco: Petal Lace Gown, $1,299.99 -

    For the romantic bride, Kirstie Kelly offers a petal lace trumpet gown with a subtle sweetheart neckline and cording hand sewn throughout the skirt.

    Bobbie Thomas' take: "This demure, feminine gown is perfect for a bride who is stylish yet conservative."

    Kelly for Costco / Kelly for Costco
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    David's Bridal: Oleg Cassini Gown, $850, with Bolero, $129 -

    Moments after Kate Middleton revealed her wedding gown, companies feverishly began emulating her classic look. David's Bridal re-creates the royal style – without the palace price tag – by pairing a strapless ball gown silhouette with a lace bolero.

    Bobbie Thomas' take: "Timeless and full of grace, this classic look is a chic option."

    David’s Bridal / David’s Bridal
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    J. Crew: Starling Dress, $1,400 -

    J. Crew offers the perfect flirty option – a silk taffeta dress with festive ruffles, ostrich feathers and lace.

    Bobbie Thomas' take: "Sweet yet not too simple, this cocktail-length dress is fun, feminine and fabulous for a carefree setting."

    J.Crew / J.Crew
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    J.Crew: Duchesse Satin Noelle Gown, $2,500 -

    Capture an old-world glamour with this vintage-inspired dress, complete with a traditional empire silhouette, dramatic bottom and three-quarter-length sleeves.

    Bobbie Thomas' take: "Consider this one conservative chic, a traditional gown fit for a queen."

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    J. Crew: Silk Chiffon Whitney Gown, $425 -

    Keep it casual with a flowy, strapless gown made of lightweight silk chiffon and boasting an eye-catching sash that falls down the center front.

    Bobbie Thomas' take: "Flowy, breezy and easy, this gown is ideal for a destination wedding."

    J.Crew / J.Crew
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    White by Vera Wang for David's Bridal: Ball Gown with Fully Draped Skirt, $1,400 -

    For the modern princess, Vera Wang offers a princess-seam bodice and a flowy, breathtaking skirt.

    Bobbie Thomas' take: "Brides in search of the fairy-tale gown will appreciate this delicate yet dramatic gown."

    Vera Wang for David’s Bridal / Vera Wang for David’s Bridal
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    White by Vera Wang for David's Bridal: Gown with Hand Appliqued Lace, $800 -

    Vera Wang brings her golden touch to this unique lace gown featuring a romantic, asymmetrical pattern over soft, sensuous netting.

    Bobbie Thomas' take: "This understated yet whimsical design feels like a modern fantasy."

    Vera Wang for David’s Bridal / Vera Wang for David’s Bridal

Of course, on a volunteer honeymoon, you’re not alone together. DiFrancesco recently completed Habitat leadership training, and as the trip coordinator he selected the dozen-or-so members of their group. One of Jen's bridesmaids will come along, as well as the priest who is marrying them.

"We pitched the idea to people who we really wanted to come, but after that we left it open and let people self-select," said DiFrancesco. "Neither of us framed it as some exclusive honeymoon," added Jen. "We just said, 'This is a service trip with Habitat and we'd love to have you, as a friend, be there with us."

Though amenities can be few, and the work hard, volunteers with a taste for adventure find the journey offers an intimate look at a host community. As an added bonus, costs such as air fare and program fees are tax deductible.

"How often can you tax-deduct part of your honeymoon?" said Teresa Allen, 38, who volunteered in Tanzania after her 2005 wedding to husband Andrew. "We saved for a long time for such a big trip, but got some of it back at the next tax cycle, which was nice."

The Allens worked in the rural village of Pommern with a group called Global Volunteers. They helped build a library, checked in patients at the local clinic, and Teresa taught an impromptu computer class for kids.

Unlike DiFrancesco and Jen, the Allens didn’t know the other members of their group at the beginning of the trip. The rest of the volunteers were amused to find out they were honeymooners, and gave them the nicest room in the mission house where they stayed. Teresa chuckles remembering the "honeymoon suite," which came with a private bathroom, but without running water.

The two have always shared a love of travel. "About a month after we met we got our passports stamped together," says Teresa, "and we just never stopped."

When she brought home an article written by a friend who had been on a service trip, Andrew's interest was perked. "It really tapped into my passion for travel," said Andrew, 37. "She wanted to do the volunteering, and I really wanted to get to Africa, and we met halfway."

At Andrew’s urging, they tacked on a trek up Mount Kilimanjaro to the end of the trip. After almost a month in Africa, they returned home to St. Paul, Minnesota, feeling they’d seen Tanzania from an insider's perspective.

"The best way to immerse yourself in another culture is as a volunteer," said Teresa. "Because otherwise you're just a tourist and that's, in my view, kind of voyeuristic and doesn't give you the full impact."

Andrew enthusiastically described making the rounds with the village doctor, who was also the dentist and the meat inspector. "He'd be working in the clinic and then there would be a fresh slaughter and he'd have to go inspect the meat for parasites," he said. "The traditional honeymoon wouldn't see too much of that, and it was a good experience."

Immersion is one of the core goals of the trips, said Michele Gran, 56, who co-founded Global Volunteers almost three decades ago. "These communities invite us in like families," she says. "I'm not overstating that and, even all these years later, it takes my breath away."

The challenge for many American travelers, she said, is to accept a role as part of the chain reaction of service. An entire project won't be completed in the time you are there, and your role is to provide hands-on help, not advice.

"We have to resist that natural temptation we have as Americans to jump right in and try to problem solve everything," said Gran. "And you might say to yourself, what can one person do in one or two weeks? But the truth is that the strength of a project is in its continuity."

Flexibility is also key for the volunteer honeymooner. For example, DiFrancesco and Jen's Habitat group may arrive in Honduras to find a nearly completed house, or a hole in the ground that still needs a foundation. On another of their trips, the location changed from Mexico to Honduras last minute because of the spread of swine flu.

"In every trip we've done, something has thrown a wrench in it one way or another," said DiFrancesco. "If you're not flexible, you're going to cause yourself a lot of stress."

They key, say the couples, is to choose an organization with a long history in the field. Names like Habitat for Humanity and Global Volunteers, as well as Earth Watch, United Planet, and the American Red Cross, came up commonly in discussion.

Those who have volunteered add that honeymooners should be prepared for tasks that ask them to work separately as well as ones during which they will be together.

But for those who are game, a honeymoon can be the chance to fly halfway across the world, to a location you might not normally have time to visit, and the shared spirit of service can deepen the bonds of a new marriage.

"The whole thing really tied into our view of ourselves as a couple," says Teresa Allen. "We wrote into our vows that we were not only committing to each other but to a life of travel and learning and service."

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