A school bus pulled up in front of the manicured landscaping of the Ritz Charles in Carmel on Saturday. It was a sunny, beautiful day for a wedding.
About a dozen homeless veterans from the Hoosier Veterans Assistance Foundation stepped off the bus. Sarah Cummins, in a jeweled sleeveless peplum top and pastel pants, cheerfully greeted and welcomed them to the reception in the glass house, one of the many Pinterest-picture-perfect spots at the Ritz.
"Thank you for having us," one of the veterans said, standing near a stunning tiered fountain. "It means more than you know."
This was supposed to be Cummins' wedding day.
But after the 25-year-old Purdue University pharmacy student and her fiance, Logan Araujo, cancelled their $30,000 wedding a week ago for undisclosed reasons, the two were left with the non-refundable would-be celebration.
So Cummins decided to invite people from four area homeless shelters to enjoy the 170-person reception she and Araujo spent two years planning.
"For me, it was an opportunity to let these people know they deserved to be at a place like this just as much as everyone else does," Cummins said.
Inside, the guests from the veterans foundation, Wheeler Mission, Third Phase Christian Center and Dayspring Center, many dressed in semi-formal apparel, dined on hors d'oeuvres of bourbon-glazed meatballs, goat cheese and roasted garlic bruschetta.
"It's beautiful," guest Erik Jensen said. "We're having a great time."
Jensen, who has been at Wheeler Mission for five months, said he was humbled that he was the recipient of the former couple's kindness.
"It's just a really great opportunity for us, that was going to be a huge tragedy in her life," he said. "It's a great opportunity to spread love. Being homeless is kind of a big loss for all of these guys. This is just a very nice thing to do."
The men who attended from the Wheeler were selected based on their success in the mission's Steps Toward Economic and Personal Stability (STEPS) program.
"We want to show them that if you excel, good stuff happens," Wheeler case manager Bryan Schrank.
The reception went on as the staff at the Ritz Charles planned it, event manager Sherry Harper said. Outside of rearranging the tables to remove the head table and compressing the time, dinner service happened as it usually would, right down to serving the wedding cake and the former couple's late-night snack of pizza. The cake, though, was pre-sliced behind the scenes.
"We really didn't change anything," Harper said.
The story has inspired a wave of good will around the city and beyond. Matt Guanzon was among those reaching out locally.
The Indianapolis man donated some suits from his own closet so guests could dress up for the dinner, and others pitched in after he posted a request on his Facebook page. His tailor, A.Mina Fine Clothier & Tailors on Monument Circle, donated several pieces, and The Gifted Gown contributed dresses and accessories.
Guanzon, a contract negotiator for United Healthcare, rushed around Saturday in a cargo vehicle loaned by a friend, picking up the formal wear and dropping it off at the shelters throughout Central Indiana.
He even thought of the kids, asking that friends drop off children’s items at the Ritz before the dinner.
"We mark our lives with the good times and sometimes the bad, so if we can help out in the good times, that’s what we're doing here today," Guanzon said. I’m just trying to show that even a little bit can help."
Charlie Allen, who's spent three months with at Wheeler Mission, received one of Guanzon's donated jackets.
"I didn't have a sport coat," he said, tugging gently at the lapels of his new coat, smiling. "I think I look pretty nice in it."
Allen, like others, was grateful for his invitation.
"For a lot of us, this is a good time to show us what we can have," he said. "Or to remind us what we had."
It was a difficult decision to attend, Cummins said, but when one of the homeless program directors said he was looking forward to meeting her, she knew she had to.
Three of her original seven bridesmaids, along with her mom and aunts, also came to support her during what they knew would be a hard day for her.
“Out of everything, I just want people to understand that there are still wonderful people in this world,” said college friend and bridesmaid Kendell Suevers.
IndyStar first reported this story Thursday, and it was quickly picked up by nationaland international media. The massive response, both negative and positive, was overwhelming, Cummins said. She says she doesn’t want any of the attention, but was caught off guard by how many people reached out to her.
"There have been hundreds of people that have said how touched they were and how this is something that really meant a lot to them," she said.
When Cummins approached Araujo with the idea of donating the dinner, he agreed to what he thought was a selfless way to deal with something that would go to waste.
Cummin said Araujo footed most of the bill for the wedding and ceremony, both of which were to be at the Ritz Charles. Cummins and her parents, and one of Araujo's family friends, paid for the rest. They got $500 back from the photographer, but everything else — the DJ, a harpist, suits, bridesmaid dresses, centerpieces and a wedding dress — is sunk.
"Everyone has done so much to give me the most wonderful experience and it just really sucks that they had to waste it," Cummins said. “It was a huge loss. But you gotta do what you gotta do, I guess. And that was one of the reasons I wanted to do something with the reception, because it literally felt like I was throwing that money in the trash. At least we can use it somehow."
She's not sure, yet, what she's going to do with the wedding dress.
"It's too painful to think about," she said. "I just love it so much. For me, I know my dream wedding is already gone. It’s happened. I got the dress, I got the place, I got everything I wanted."
And for one day, her guests felt a little bit of that.
"It's a fantastic way to take something that's an unfortunate event, and to bless others," Schrank said. "This is like Thanksgiving 2.0 for these guys. Many of them have never had a meal like this in their lives — or at least not in years."