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Shelly Sundstrom’s dream was to marry Jay Ellison, despite having advanced lymphoma. That dream was realized in “fairy-tale” fashion thanks to Wish Upon a Wedding, a new charity that grants weddings to people diagnosed as having fewer than five years to live.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

Time: Shelly Sundstrom knew she didn’t have much of it. Days, hours, minutes were slipping away — but Sundstrom knew what she wanted to do.

She wanted to marry Jay Ellison. And he wanted to marry her.

But when? And, more problematically, how? Neither of them had the stamina to plan a wedding. Shelly, 48, had advanced lymphoma, and her doctors had given her mere weeks to live. Jay, also 48, had serious health issues of his own; he had been battling multiple sclerosis for years.

A friend of the Seattle couple placed a call to Wish Upon a Wedding, a new charity that grants weddings and vow renewals to people diagnosed as having fewer than five years to live. Volunteers with the charity blasted into action — and three weeks later, Shelly was walking down the aisle and exchanging wedding vows with Jay.

Every last detail of the tasteful event, held May 2 at a mansion in a Seattle suburb, was handled by Wish Upon a Wedding; Shelly and Jay just had to show up. The dress, the tux, the flowers, the venue, the music, the limo ride, the minister, the catered meal for 50 close friends and family members — all of it was donated by vendors who wanted to help.

Volunteers also put thought into how to accommodate Shelly’s needs in her weakened state. Her parents helped her walk down the aisle, and she was able to remain seated for most of the ceremony.

“It’s just amazing there are so many people who care,” Shelly told a local television news crew at the wedding. “It’s like a fairy tale. Like a fairy tale.”

Three weeks later, she was gone.

‘Such a need’
Wish Upon a Wedding was founded by Liz Guthrie, 40, a wedding and event planner who saw a need: To make weddings possible for terminally ill people who are too consumed with health issues, medical bills and other anxieties to take on the stress and expense of planning such events themselves.

She spoke with friends in the wedding industry and suggested starting a nonprofit that would grant wedding wishes to deserving couples. The concept exploded. Dozens of vendors stepped up, wondering how they might be able to donate their time and services.

Since the charity’s first fledgling chapter began in the San Francisco Bay area in January of this year, 15 more chapters have opened in major cities around the United States. The organization is on track to have 25 chapters by its first anniversary.

So far, the charity has coordinated four weddings in San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago and Sacramento, Calif. Charity officials hope to grant dozens of wedding wishes each year, with the possibility of that number climbing into the hundreds.

“There’s such a need out there,” said Wish Upon a Wedding president Sasha Souza, 41, who has run a national wedding-planning business for years. “To get to meet these amazing people, to talk to them, hear their stories, see the strength they have. This is their wish. This is all they want — to have a small wedding for 50 people. I think it’s such a small wish to grant.”

Of the four weddings granted thus far, three of the brides have had cancer, and one groom had an advanced case of lupus nephritis that was attacking his kidneys.

“For me, watching it as a wedding planner, I’ve never been to a wedding that is that emotional,” Guthrie said. “Knowing that someone is making a lifetime commitment but not knowing how long that life is, it’s incredibly emotional. To see them surrounded by their loved ones and see them sharing a celebration of their lives, it’s just incredible.”

How the application process works
To qualify as wedding recipients, couples must be willing to sign Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) forms giving doctors permission to communicate directly with Wish Upon a Wedding.

“This way their doctor can give us the definite diagnosis and prognosis,” Souza explained.

Christian & Rehanna's Wedding

While most weddings will be granted to the terminally ill, Wish Upon a Wedding expanded its policy this week to make weddings available to even more people. The charity now plans to provide a limited number of weddings to “those faced with other personal burdens, such as serious emotional, physical or other debilitating issues.”

The organization also helps couples who already have been married for years but who, due to life-threatening diagnoses, are preparing to say goodbye. Couples in that situation can apply for vow-renewal ceremonies.

Once approval is granted for a wedding or a vow renewal, a wedding planner and local vendors kick into high gear and try to make the event happen within six weeks. (Shorter time windows are possible in more urgent situations, as was necessary in Shelly Sundstrom’s case.) Absolutely everything happens on a fast track. Photos and videos are delivered to the couple within four weeks of the wedding.

To make life a bit easier for wedding planners and vendors, Wish Upon a Wedding tries not to hold weddings on peak days of the week — Saturdays, for instance. It’s often simpler to arrange for Sunday and midweek weddings at nice venues.

Vendors provide everything for the couple’s big day, including dresses and tuxes for the bride, groom and wedding party. (One exception: Couples must provide their own alcohol for wedding receptions.) The charity also flies up to four people in for the wedding and puts them up in a hotel for two nights.

“That takes money and [airline] miles,” Souza said. “But this is what we do. I swear, I can do a wedding in a week if I have to. It’s so easy when you have a team of people already in place who are so eager to join your cause.”

A time to celebrate
In some cases, “married status” can hold added significance for couples facing the specter of end-of-life decisions.

When Christian Steller, 36, and Rehanna Hanif, 35, got married on April 15 with the help of Wish Upon a Wedding, they were grappling with enormous stresses. Christian has lupus, and his kidneys were failing. Shortly before the wedding, Christian learned that his sister wanted to donate a kidney to him. Surgery was scheduled just 12 days after Christian and Rehanna’s wedding date.

“I told Rehanna, when she was debating it: Wouldn’t you rather be my wife before this transplant?” said Christian, whose surgery was a success. “You’ll have every say in the world versus just being a girlfriend or a fiancée.”

The next pair to be helped by the charity will be a same-sex couple in Washington, D.C. The two men have been together for 10 years, and they have two adopted sons from Guatemala. One of the men has been battling lung cancer since 2008, and he has been given just months to live. Their wedding is set for August.

“We grant weddings regardless of sexual orientation,” Souza said. “We want families to be able to have this special time together while they can.”

The wedding ceremonies and receptions give families an outlet to be happy together, take photos together, laugh together and dance together — precisely the kinds of moments that can fall by the wayside in the midst of a grueling health crisis.

Shelly Sundstrom, the bride mentioned at the outset of this story, was quite ill at her wedding — but on that day, she was profoundly happy. One of her surviving daughters thanked Wish Upon a Wedding with these words:

“For everything you did for her and Jay, I truly thank you. Your gifts could not have been bestowed on a more deserving woman. She passed peacefully, as Shelly Lynn Ellison. Thank you for making that possible. And I hope everyone else you touch finds the same happiness my mom did.”

To learn more about Wish Upon a Wedding, visit its website by clicking here.