Photographing a National Teen Love Story

Dustin Snyder’s story came into my life two and a half weeks ago through my friend Tom. Tom told me the heartbreaking story of a handsome 19-year-old suffering from terminal cancer. A week ago, Tom helped Dustin live out one of his wishes: a meet and greet with the Tampa Bay Lightning and being able to enjoy the game from awesome seats with his high school sweetheart, Sierra. I was touched by the story, that Dustin is able to live out some grand wishes. I hoped that I might be able to do something meaningful for him.

I didn't hear more about Dustin until a few days ago, when Tom called late in the evening to tell me that Dustin and Sierra wanted to get married. Haunted by the thoughts of not knowing how much longer they might have together, they wanted to marry as soon as possible. Of course, they were in need of a wedding photographer willing to donate their time on short notice. My initial reaction was "YES, YES, YES! Of course!". I was elated to be given something meaningful to do for Dustin and Sierra.

The next day, their love story aired on local and national news stations around the country. With only two days to plan the wedding, much needed to be organized. The burden of planning was lifted from the family, thanks to their close friend, who offered to put the whole celebration together. This was not the only help given to the family. When Tampa heard the news, a huge outpouring of donations of all sorts erupted. Anything that would possibly be needed for a beautiful wedding was provided. It was amazing to see the community come together to make this dream come true for Dustin. A time like this is when you can clearly see the heart of a community and its people.

I was definitely more nervous going into this event that usual. There’s always pressure in photographing weddings… But this was different. These are the memories that their family’s will cherish years down the line, when life is different. The gravity of shooting this for them simply meant more. My nerves immediately settled when I met Amy, a very close friend of the family and one of the gals helping take charge of the wedding; big personality, full of spunk and overflowing with love for Dustin, Sierra and their entire family. Alina, wedding coordinator, was so helpful and directed the event with grace and ease. Everyone was exceptionally gracious for the gifts received to make this day possible.

Peppered with donations from all corners and featuring everything you could want at a rustic, farm chic wedding, the ceremony was absolutely gorgeous. The owner of an upcoming event venue, The Big Red Barn, donated her farm for the cause. A royal feast was donated by local food providers. A DJ and photo booth entertainment showed up from 70 miles away (Orlando). Sierra was resplendent in an ice princess Elsa Gown, and handsome Dustin beamed at her in his donated tuxedo.

Four local news stations were there to cover the event and interview the love birds. It felt strange to share the editorial stage with reporters and their cameramen, being something I’ve never experienced. This introduced a whole new element to wedding photography. I found myself paparazzi-ing the paparazzi! They were pleasant and I enjoyed listening to the couple answer their questions, who both seemed so happy to do this. Dustin said it was the best day of his life, and none of us doubted him. After his interview, one reporter approached Dustin telling him that Titus O’Neil, a WWE professional wrestler, was on Facetime and wanted to give the groom his best wishes. This was so cool to watch… Titus lounging in bed, having a completely impromptu and human conversation with Dustin as he smiled into the phone camera. Cassandra, mother of the groom, and her two best friends gathered in the background to peek over Dustin’s shoulder, holding tightly to each other’s arms. It was evident how much these best friends mean to one another. Amy later commented on the photo, “Cassandra, we got you”. During her interview, Sierra was in awe of the support of the community and she shared this many times with the interviewers. She gave insight to her relationship with Dustin and his family, as well as recapping the story of the proposal only days prior. Her parents were iffy at first, but coming to an understanding of the situation, they shared Sierra’s joy that she would marry her best friend.

Spirits were high throughout the day and smiles were enormously wide. Tears fell during only a couple short interludes. I watch Dustin’s best friend approach him and lay a chain with a cross around his neck. They hugged as each man shed tears. Another friend continuously switches between shaking Dustin’s hand and hugging him close as he struggles to find words to say. Though, I think one of the most truly heartfelt moments of the day was watching Dustin dance with his mom. Nothing else in the building existed while these two shared a moment that only a mother and son can share. Their cheeks together as they squeezed each other tight. Later, someone would make a Facebook comment to a photo of this moment, “No words can ever describe how beautiful this photo truly is”. Tears streamed down my face as I continued to photograph something that I’ll never forget. Every soul in the room could feel the love between Dustin and his mother, Cassandra. A love that breaks through the limits of time and crushes any barricade in its way.

Dustin, of cours,e became tired a couple times throughout the day, needing breaks to regather. Each time, Sierra was right by his side asking him what he needed to be comfortable and offering a smile and gentle touch. Sierra’s strength radiated and I think her joyous attitude had a tremendous effect on the atmosphere of the celebration.

The whole day was something from a fairytale. The happiness that I and everyone else in attendance felt at seeing these two live out their wish of marriage, was one of the most heartfelt experiences of my life. Photographing their wedding and being a part of such an intimate and difficult time for Dustin, Sierra and their families, was something that I will cherish forever. I was honored and thankful to have been able to do this for them, to freeze these memory that their families will always be able to look back on... There are no greater riches than the those felt in the heart.

We send love and good will in to the Universe for you, Dustin and Sierra. And these two teach us never to take our lives for granted, to love honestly and completely.

<3

Check out their complete wedding gallery by clicking the link below.

Dustin & Sierra's Wedding Gallery

Before closing, I’d like to take a moment and recognize all of the wonderful businesses that donated their time, talents, money and great efforts to make this wedding perfectly beautiful for Dustin and Sierra. None of this would have been possible without them and I think it’s extremely important to share these generous donations. Giving back in your community and to those in need is what makes the world go ‘round.

There were a huge number of businesses and individuals who gifted so many wonderful things to this cause for Dustin and Sierra. There may be some that are not on this list and for this I apologize! Feel free to contact me with any more information. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for supporting these two sweethearts as they go through the most difficult of times. Your efforts mean more than you know. <3

Alina Clark donated her services as wedding coordinator

Amy Gialluca, best friend to the mother of the groom, donated her time by organizing the media and helping assist the wedding coordinator

Connie Williams, the owner of The Big Red Barn, and Sandy Boggs, manager, offered to host the wedding in their gorgeous venue

Silver Moon Custom Art & Photography donated the photography for the celebration www.silvermooncustomart.com

Jason of Time Capsule Wedding Films, Inc, donated videography services and is creating a movie of the event http://timecapsuleweddingfilms.com

Season Design Studio did flowers for the venue

Bloomingdays Florist created arrangements for the wedding party http://www.bloomingdays.com

Delaney Clark was the hairstylist and makeup artist for bride and bridesmaids

Whitney Krigns created and donated a ceremony braid art piece

Jordan Caldwell donated personalized yeti mugs for the Bride and Groom

David Goldsberry officiating of the wedding

Xochitl Ochoa gifted the beautiful wedding cake

Scott Ryan serenaded the guests with his guitar and wonderful voice prior to the ceremony www.facebook.com/scottryanacoustic

Danny Thomas and Ivey Thomas donated their time and talents as DJ DWAYNE and assistant to the wedding coordinator
https://www.facebook.com/DjDwayneMobileMusic/

Chris Marrero, the manager for a local Pei Wei, donated the main dishes

Bracken Smith, owner of Kick Yo Butt BBQ also donated main dishes, along with delicious sides https://www.facebook.com/pg/KickYoButtBBQ/about/?ref=page_internal

Camie Larkin or Camie’s Creative Designs, made beautiful “Mr” & “Mrs” signs, along with “Synder 1.28.18” sign for the head table https://www.facebook.com/pg/CamiesCreativeDesigns/about/?ref=page_internal

Hector, who is also a DJ, donated his time manning a photo booth www.CreativeEntOrl.com

The wedding gown was donated by a company who closed their doors on Monday

An astonishing engagement ring and wedding bands were donated, I am working on finding the name of this business.

Kelly McNalley, with St. Joes Oncologist Group, and Doctors Mogul, Crockrell, Obzut and Schaefer of BayCare Medical Group: Pediatric Hematology Oncology, generously donated drinks for the event

Tom Finley, of We Love Logos, helped make connections between the bride and groom and local businesses that he knew would love to donate their time and/or talents. He also donated custom logo products http://www.welovelogos.com