Saint-Louis-du-Nord, Haiti — Draped over hospital beds and hanging from IV poles are wedding gowns from collections with names almost as sumptuous as their beadwork: Elegante, Bliss and Dreams.
It isn't exactly the ideal showcase for her dresses, but bridal store owner Diane Cornelius regards the scene with a smile.
"Welcome to Ruth's Bridal Shop in Haiti," she says.
The real Ruth's Bridal is in Lexington, where Cornelius, 45, lives with her husband, Joe, and their four children. But for the past 2½ years she has been bringing dresses to Haiti, one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere. She plans to go again in July.
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Before she made her first trip in March 2009. she says. "I would only go to a third-world country if there was a resort on the beach."
Two years after an earthquake devastated its capital of Port-au-Prince — the anniversary is Thursday — Haiti isn't exactly a tourist destination. But where others see devastation and destitution, and where Cornelius once feared she would find only voodoo and filth, she now sees something else — hope.
That's not to say there isn't hardship. One of the brides Cornelius outfits for the first of two weddings held during her most recent September trip scrapes caked mud from her ankles, the result of a long ride on unpaved roads. Another bride is stunningly beautiful but smells as if she has not been able to bathe for days.
Cornelius dresses them and seven other women in a medical clinic on the grounds of Northwest Haiti Christian Mission because the clinic is one of the few places with air conditioning.
In Saint-Louis-du-Nord, where the non-profit mission is based, there are no paved roads and little electricity or running water. When Haitian pastor Jean Claude Jean Baptiste started holding mass weddings here in 2005, he had only two wedding dresses shared by a dozen brides during ceremonies.
The mission's U.S. headquarters are in Zionsville, Ind., and one of its longtime supporters attends the same Lexington church as Cornelius, Southland Christian. In 2008 he asked Cornelius if she would be willing to bring to Haiti wedding gowns she no longer could selli.
"I think what really got me was that I think I decided that it's not OK with me that these women don't have the same experience because of geography or finances, whatever the reason might be," says Cornelius. "I knew that I could do something about this."
And in Haiti she discovered marriages are more than wedding registries and bridal showers. They are a step on the path toward a better life.
In a place where church is often the only social structure, couples who are married are "accepted into their communities and into this culture in a way that they never were before," says Northwest director Janeil Owen. A woman who was not allowed to sing with the church choir, once married, will be able to participate fully. A middle-age woman who has never been addressed by a formal title, once married, will be called Madame. And a young woman whose prospective in-laws shunned her, once married, will be treated with respect.
Weddings and funerals are two of the most important events in Haitian society, and families will go into debt to pull them off properly, says Owen.
While Cornelius takes care of the dresses and decorations, Magdala Petion Remy and Jean Baptiste, both of whom are associated with the mission, take care of everything else, from applying for marriage licenses (one costs $15, about two weeks' wages in Haiti) to making sure the couples show. Some of the intended know Remy; others are recommended by their pastors.
Cornelius estimates each trip costs her and her husband, who accompanies her whenever possible, several thousand dollars, and she solicits donations from customers, colleagues and the community. She is in the process of establishing a non-profit and, on her most recent trip, expanded her mission to include supplying one woman with three dresses so she could start a dress rental business.
Although she was raised in the bridal business, following after her mother and grandmother, Cornelius delivers the saccharin of the industry with a strong dose of reality. Joe is her second husband, and when they talk to couples before the ceremonies they advise them to be patient and work through their difficulties.
While visiting the community of La Presqu'ile on a previous trip, Cornelius met a woman who expressed her desire to be married. On her most recent trip Cornelius returned to the fishing village where this woman, Louisilia Magiste, lives. Located on the northwestern tip of Haiti, the community consists of 150 people who live in thatch homes that lack electricity, running water and any form of real furniture. Inside Magiste's home it is dark and hot, and the only place to stand is in the center where the slanted roofs meet.
On her own, Magiste, 37, would not be able to afford to marry the father of her five children in the way her community expects. But with Cornelius lending the dress and footing the bill for wedding rings, marriage licenses and a reception, Magiste and two other women, a bride of 18 and a 50-year-old mother of seven, are able to marry.
"When you are not married it's like you are someone with a bad sign on you that says, 'Hey, this person is an outcast from society,'" Magiste said through a translator. "But when you are married, then the sign is removed, and everybody sees you as a complete person."
It is the need for something we take for granted that still surprises Cornelius, even after six trips to Haiti and 121 brides.
"I never imagined something like this could change someone's life," she said. "Even if just for one day, (the bride) feels important."