Giving Haitian brides the wedding of their dreams

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Nicola Topsom’s Floriana Project has collected and donated 500 gowns, all gathered in her ‘spare’ time

At any given time, Nicola Topsom has 40 used and donated wedding dresses in her modest Burlington apartment that she eventually ships or takes to Haiti to give brides the wedding of their dreams.

Haiti is among the 20 poorest countries in the world and remains the poorest in the western hemisphere, according to the World Bank.

Topsom, 44, a personal support worker, started the Floriana Project, a small volunteer charitable organization, in 2015.

It collects donated wedding gowns and bridesmaid, flower girl and mother-of-the-bride dresses to send to the impoverished Caribbean nation.

“I wanted to do something that was job creation and had sustainability. I wanted to know people could generate income and have steady work.”

Nicola Topsom

Three years after starting the project with her sister Abigail, Topsom has shipped or taken 500 wedding dresses to Haiti.

She is helped twice a year by Hamilton charity Joy and Hope of Haiti, which offers her space for 10 boxes of dresses in containers of goods it sends to Haiti.

The rest of the time, Topsom and two or three other volunteers visit Haiti twice a year, taking two suitcases of gowns each.

The Floriana Project has three “retail” stores in poor neighbourhoods of Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital, where brides, attendants and women attending a wedding can rent or buy gowns for whatever price they can afford.

“We always tell the customers to pay what they can,” says Topsom. As a principle of dignity, they all want to pay something, she says, although “our policy is nobody gets turned away if they don’t have the money. And we tend to hover around the $50 mark.”

The stores employ three staff, who in turn support 40 family members.

So Topsom’s dream of spreading some happiness in Haiti is also fulfilling a dream to create jobs there.

“I wanted to do something that was job creation and had sustainability,” she says. “I wanted to know people could generate income and have steady work.”

As for the brides, they can now afford to the kind of beautiful gown they could only dream of before.

“Now it’s not just a dream that will never happen.”

Topsom was especially gratified that a caregiver at the orphanage from which she adopted her youngest daughter — Divna, now 10 — took a three-hour bus ride to get her wedding gown at one of the shops.

Another special moment was a community wedding that Topsom helped organize for 64 couples in one day with a local pastor in Cap Haitian. The Floriana Project supplied all the dresses.

Being a a personal support worker for palliative and Alzheimer’s patients may be Topsom’s regular job, but the Floriana Project is her joy.

“I do this work for fun … it’s a passion project,” she says.

Art Duerksen, who helps out with Joy and Hope of Haiti, says Topsom’s outreach is “amazing. And to be doing it primarily on her own — it’s a wedding for goodness sake. It’s a very special thing.”

Topsom’s next trip is on Sept. 4 and, this time, she plans to visit a maternity clinic to deliver baby outfits made from the remaining good parts of any damaged wedding dresses.

The outfits are used for “going home” — to dress babies that have died for funerals or, on a happier note, as christening gowns.

Deb Dury of Burlington, who sews the outfits for Topsom, is overjoyed to help out.

“I’m sure living in such poverty and being able to experience having something nice to wear must make them feel absolutely wonderful,” she says.

Topsom, despite a full-time job, being married and caring for two adopted daughters — the oldest, Shantaya, 14, is from Malawi — somehow finds time to devote to the Floriana Project. She also recently started up a small sewing school in India for abandoned and widowed women to learn something to generate income for themselves.

She has also partnered at times with NGOs and churches to help supply wedding gowns for community weddings in Ghana, India, Rwanda, Malawi and Kenya.

“I just make it work. I have a lot of fantastic volunteers all over Canada,” says Topsom.

To donate a gown or dresses, contact Topsom at florianaproject@gmail.com. For more, see FlorianaProject.com or the project’s Facebook page.

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