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News / Northwest

Wedding’s off; reception is a party for homeless

Bride-to-be lifts others’ spirits after groom gets cold feet

By DOMINIC GATES, The Seattle Times
Published: January 24, 2016, 5:00am
6 Photos
Vinay Pinto, a server of Herban Feast, brings plates of food to the table Jan. 16 for Rebecca, from right, and her son Emmanuel, 9, and niece Sarah, 7.
Vinay Pinto, a server of Herban Feast, brings plates of food to the table Jan. 16 for Rebecca, from right, and her son Emmanuel, 9, and niece Sarah, 7. (Lindsey Wasson/The Seattle Times via AP) Photo Gallery

SEATTLE — The three long vehicles that pulled up to the chic Sodo Park event venue were not limousines that had glided over from some wealthy neighborhood, but battered yellow school buses that had labored through the rain and darkness for 10 miles down unlovely Aurora Avenue.

The people who spilled out from the buses, half of them little kids, were from the homeless shelter called Mary’s Place. And as they entered the softly-lit, high-ceiling hall to find large tables set immaculately for dinner — complete with candles and floral centerpieces — they stepped into someone else’s dream.

For this was to have been Dana Olsen’s wedding reception.

Instead, it became a feast with a live band and dancing, a one-night-only luxury for strangers Olsen had never met, a gift from her to families who have very little.

“I’m going to have a bad day,” she told her best friend Katie McCary, who was to have been her maid of honor. “Other people might as well have a good night.”

Instead of getting married, Dana spent the day hiking with her dad near Palm Springs, California.

Pre-party primping

The buses had set off Jan. 16 from the Mary’s Place emergency shelter on North 130th Street, just off Aurora Avenue North.

There, the nonprofit has been granted, as a gift from the city of Seattle, a one-year lease on an abandoned Pi Bank building, an ugly, four-story monolith with coffin-shaped windows.

On the ground floor, blue plastic curtains screen off rectangular areas, just big enough for a mattress on the floor, granting a modicum of privacy to the families who sleep behind them.

Upstairs, there’s a common area where the kids can play and watch TV, and former offices repurposed into makeshift bedrooms.

Before the families boarded the buses, a team of hair stylists and makeup artists led by Lauren Grinnell, who runs Lala’s Cuts salon in Queen Anne, had given makeovers to all who wanted a little primping for the occasion.

As they beautified the women and kids, Mary’s Place staff raided their donated clothes racks for the best evening wear. Many of the little girls were kitted out with flouncy dresses left over from a recent holiday party.

‘It takes a big heart’

Near the band, which had begun to play a mix of jazz and pop, 28-year-old twins Rebecca and Sarah — they asked that their last names not be used because they felt ashamed of being homeless — sat with their children, Emmanuel, 9, and Sarah, 7, who wore a tiara.

Newly homeless, the women looked elegant, model-like in their borrowed clothes.

Orphans who grew up in New York, they said they have no family. Sarah said they were once prosperous and had done charity work. They never expected to need charity. They arrived in Seattle almost a month ago with an expectation that a contact would have a job and a place to stay. Neither materialized, a recurring story from those at the dinner.

“People make promises, then you find yourself alone,” Sarah said.

Yet, she and her sister are devout Christians, and Sarah expressed confidence “the Lord will not forsake us.”

This evening was a respite, a reminder that they once were not in need of shelter, she said.

Both women are hoping for administrative or secretarial work. Sarah said she’s always loved airplanes and would like to work at Boeing.

At nearby tables, Zaneta Reid and Charlotte Wheelock — two Mary’s Place alumni who are now staff members and particular success stories — sat with their children.

Reid, here with her two youngest boys, Zaire and Damon, said she spent three weeks at Mary’s Place in 2011 after fleeing domestic violence.

The organization helped her put a new life together. Two years ago, she married a military vet now studying electrical engineering — “an amazing man,” she said.

She lives in Lynnwood now and gives back by running counseling at the Mary’s Place day center.

Wheelock said she was evicted from her home in Albuquerque, New Mexico, after her husband was paralyzed with a spine condition.

Homeless for eight months, she, too, arrived in Seattle with a promise of a job opportunity that didn’t work out. She ended up in Mary’s Place.

Now she works at the shelter as the employment coordinator and has an apartment in a low-income housing facility in Seattle.

Manuel and Devonne, a young couple from Spokane who also asked that their last name not be used, arrived at Sodo Park with their son Darrian, 9.

Homeless since Dec. 1, they came to Seattle on the false promise of a job offer and a place to stay.

After their money dried up, they spent a few nights on the street before finding Mary’s Place.

That break allowed Manuel to finally land a job, at a Quality Inn downtown. “They’ve been more than amazing with me, understanding our situation,” Manuel said.

Manuel appreciated what Dana Olsen had given them that evening.

“It takes a big heart to give away to other people everything your heart was in,” he said.

Mother’s help

Though both Dana, 29, and the man she was to marry were born in Seattle, they lived together in Los Angeles. So Karen Olsen, Dana’s mother, played an even larger role than mothers often do in planning the wedding.

On the day of the party, Karen Olsen was there early with maid-of-honor McCary and family friends to assemble the centerpieces and make sure everything was in order.

Later, as children chased one another across the dance floor, Olsen danced energetically with little 7-year-old Kaleiya Moore, who wore a bright white party dress and whose braids had been lovingly gathered into a garland by Grinnell’s stylists.

Olsen said her whole family is at a loss to understand why the wedding was called off. The groom got cold feet, she said.

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Dana is “devastated,” McCary said. “But she is very strong.”

Everything was booked for the occasion and it was too late to get a refund. Dana asked her mother if she could find a way to donate the evening to the neediest, to homeless families.

“I’m proud of her,” said Karen Olsen, who consulted her father. He volunteers as a cook at the Compass Center shelter, and the plan was developed.

Karen Olsen preferred not to say how much money was spent on the reception.

But when a naive reporter suggested it must have been “more than $10,000,” her expression relayed this was a serious underestimate.

She said the preparations had kept her busy all day, and almost, but not quite, free of sadness.

“I feel good. This is a happy thing going on here,” she said. “I paused at 4:30 though, and reflected,” referring to the hour the wedding was planned.

Against the urgent requests from her girlfriends to go partying, Dana decided instead to spend a quieter day, hiking 6 miles to the Pacific Crest Trail with her dad.

“He’s a big teddy bear,” Karen Olsen said. “He’s the perfect guy for her to be with today.”

Twins Sarah and Rebecca made a point of bringing their kids over to Olsen to thank her personally.

Soon after, Olsen and her friends departed, leaving about 100 people from Mary’s Place to enjoy the rest of their evening.