When Renée Stroinski first learned she would be receiving a gorgeous wedding dress for free, she reacted the way any self-respecting bride-to-be would under the circumstances: she freaked out.
"I screamed! I was so happy -- I couldn't believe it!"
The 25-year-old Fairlawn, NJ-based student is planning to marry her boyfriend of five years, Zac Follmer in the fall of 2014, but thanks to their collective student debt (he graduated with an MBA from Seton Hall in South Orange, NJ in June; she is set to graduate with a five-year accounting degree in the spring of 2013), her dream of a perfect wedding -- and the dress to go along with it -- seemed totally out of reach. "I had conceded to the fact that I wasn’t going to wear an actual wedding dress. I was shopping for an evening dress," Stroinski told HuffPost Weddings.
That's why she was intrigued when she read the Huffington Post Weddings story of a Washington, D.C.-based newlywed who had decided to give away the $800 Cambodian silk wedding gown she'd worn for her September nuptials to a deserving bride-to-be. The generous bride -- who initially chose to remain anonymous but has since revealed her first name, Alissa -- initiated the giveaway in a bid to "pay it forward," asking brides-to-be who felt their wedding experience would be "truly transformed" by the dress to send in their stories.
Stroinski didn't hesitate when she came across the dress, which she realized would fit her 5’5 ½, size 4 frame perfectly, even though, she says, "It was almost too good to be true."
She, along with dozens of other women around the country, sent her story to Alissa via Huffington Post Weddings in a bid to walk down the aisle in the dress.
In her note to Alissa, Stroinski detailed the "leap of faith" she had taken with the help of her now-fiance to leave her retail job to pursue a college degree full-time ("He helped me muster the strength to leave my job in a recession," Stroinski later told Huffington Post Weddings. "That was totally out of character for me. Nobody has ever inspired me to be that strong.")
She went on to describe how she longed for "that special 'moment,'" when her husband-to-be and her father -- who recently underwent a kidney transplant -- would see her for the first time in her gown. "That memory is one of the few things that I know will last long after the wedding," she wrote, even though she knew the couple's extremely lean financial circumstances would probably make that impossible.
While Stroinski's story was moving, Alissa says she knew she'd found the right bride for her dress when she read about Stroinski's desire to give the dress away after she'd worn it: "I would definitely continue the bride's tradition of offering the dress for free," wrote Stroinski.
"Renée, perhaps more than anyone else ... seemed to embrace the spirit and the vision of 'paying it forward,'" Alissa told The Huffington Post. "It was clear from her letter that the impact of the dress won’t stop just at her.”
Alissa's instincts were bang-on.
"I don’t know what made me feel happier," Stroinski told Huffington Post Weddings, "that I’m gonna get to wear the dress or that I’m gonna give it to someone else after I wear it!"
Alissa will be on NBC's "TODAY" Show on Monday, Oct. 29 to pay-it-forward and hand off the beautiful gown to Renee!
For images of the dress and to read Alissa's story, click here. Below, click through photos of Stroinski and her fiance.
"In 2006, I was working in retail and also going to school and I decided to become friends with one of my co-workers," says Stroinski. "Zac and I met through him. He was in a grad program and he urged me to go back to school. I wanted to leave the workforce because I wanted more. He gave me the strength to do it. And so for the last 3 years that is what I have been doing."
The two started dating officially in 2007. "We're New York Giants fans. That's how we remember the transition to when we actually became a couple because it was the year the Giants won the superbowl!" How'd she know he was The One? "I just knew I couldn't be without him," she says.
The marriage conversation was very "organic," says Stroinski. "We started planning our lives together. I don't think there was ever an actual decision. We talked about it more and more as the years went by."
As far as a proposal, there hasn't been a formal one--yet. "We can't afford a ring right now. He's proposed, but after my graduation he said that's when he would do it for real."
The couple's wedding --a small affair for about 50 of their family members and closest friends--will take place at the Crystal Springs Resort in New Jersey in the fall of 2014.
When Follmer learned Stroinski would be the recipient of the dress, she says, "He went and found the Huffington Post Weddings link to look at it right away. He loves it!"
"I saved all the emails he sent me, all his encouraging words" says Stroinski. "I have them printed out and in shoeboxes--one for every year that we've been together. It has all the emails, and the events we go through--baseball ticket stubs, concerts, everything. I'm gonna print this Huffington Post Weddings article out and put it in there!"