WHEATFIELD – Katie and Peter Arcara were married Sunday on a gorgeous autumn afternoon.
But instead of a mountain of cookware, cutlery and other traditional wedding gifts, they asked for one thing: a freshwater well – in Sierra Leone.
The couple volunteers with Let Them LOL, a local nonprofit group that funds clean water wells in the West African nation’s villages. More than 2.6 million people in Sierra Leone do not have access to safe water, the United Nations reported last year.
“In the days of smartphones and FaceTime and all these awesome things, how do people not have clean water?” said Katie, a graphic designer at The Chapel in Getzville, where she met Peter in 2010. “That doesn’t make sense.”
Katie, 26, and Peter, 30, of the Town of Tonawanda arrived at a budget for their ideal wedding, then halved it. Half – about $6,000 – went to the cost of drilling a well that will provide clean water for up to 1,000 people for up to 30 years.
“They’re choosing to use their wedding day to give a gift that’s going to give to people for that amount of time,” said Kate Vacanti, director of Let Them LOL, who attended the wedding. “That’s going to transform that community.”
The other half went toward Sunday’s scaled-back event.
They decided to forgo a lavish meal – instead, serving sandwiches from Wegmans, pizza and wings from Vito’s in North Tonawanda and doughnut bites from Paula’s Donuts for dessert. Instead of an ornate reception room, they held it in the modest Wheatfield Community Center.
“We said, ‘If we make this simpler, we can do something way cooler than have a fancy party. We’ll still have everyone we love here. We’ll still have fun no matter what. If this is the thing we really care about, let’s really do it,’ ” Katie said shortly after the ceremony.
They went a step further, asking guests to donate toward a sponsorship of their well, in lieu of gifts. They had hoped to raise $2,100, which would cover five years of maintenance and upkeep for the well.
By early Sunday evening, they had raised $3,345, according to their online giving page at my.letthemlol.com/somethingblue.
For the Arcaras, it’s a greater gift than any other they could receive.
“We have plenty,” Katie said. “We have more than we need, really. There really isn’t anything that can bring us more joy than this.”
The cause infused nearly every aspect of their wedding. “Something Blue” – blue being the color of fresh, clean water – was the wedding theme. Guests were asked to wear blue. They invited guests to write “love notes to Sierra Leone” on a table filled with photos of smiling villagers. Cutouts of drops of water framed their vows.
It wasn’t the wedding that Katie’s parents, Josephine and Roger, envisioned for their daughter, but they embraced her ideas.
“We know where her heart is,” Katie’s mother said. “How do you not agree with something that’s so selfless? We admire and are proud of her.”
The couple designed a wedding symbol – a heart inside a drop of water – and handed out two ceramic copies as a favor. Guests kept one and wrote their names on the others, which are destined for Sierra Leone.
To the newlywed Arcaras, it’s another way to build relationships spanning thousands of miles. “It moves me,” Katie said. “What I see is, we have so much more in common than we think we do. If we can tear down those walls and build a little bridge through something like this, that’s how change happens.”
She was introduced to the group in 2012 through Nick Thompson, a videographer and Peter’s best man.
Katie has since visited Sierra Leone three times – in 2013, 2014 and, most recently, in April. “The kids are drawn to her like a magnet,” Vacanti said. “She has such a big heart for them.”
For the first trip, she had 24 hours to decide whether to go. It was Peter who gave her the support and confidence she needed to say yes.
“I said, ‘It seems pretty obvious that this is where your heart is. It seems like this is what you’ve been drawn to. This is what God is teaching you. This is why you’re in this position,’ ” said Peter, a 3-D animator at production company dPost. “It seemed like a no-brainer to me.”
She found a country still devastated by a decade long civil war that ended in 2002. But she found the people to be warm and joyous. And it helped her to put her own priorities in order.
“They’re so rich in community,” Katie said. “What you find is that we have a ton to learn about each other. When you go there there’s no, ‘Hey, how are you?’ There is no such thing as a casual greeting.
“When you say hello, you are entering a conversation. Their pace of life is slower. What they value is each other, peace and community. And what we value can sometimes get lost in the shuffle of all the things that distract us.”
Worldwide, 4,000 children a day die from not having access to clean drinking water, Vacanti said. One in five children in Sierra Leone doesn’t live to their fifth birthday, mainly due to waterborne illnesses, she said.
Her group has raised enough funds in its six years to use its donated drilling rig to dig 80 wells, which are between 60 and 200 feet deep, depending on the geography, Vacanti said. They’ve also built a school – Hope’s Rising – for orphans. Let Them LOL, or Laugh Out Loud. was named after her husband’s unique laugh, and the idea that people who lack basic necessities still experience basic human emotions such as joy and laughter.
“It’s mostly people from the Western New York community just saying, ‘You know what? It’s not OK that kids don’t have clean water. We need to do something about it,’ ” she said.
The Arcaras don’t yet know where their well will be dug. When they find out, they want to have the village’s name engraved on the inside of the wedding rings they exchanged Sunday.
“It’s a way to say to our community that we appreciate you and look what we can do together,” Katie said of her special day. “That’s the point, right? We’re getting united. Everyone’s here to celebrate. Let’s create something that’s going to last.”