A woman from Ohio has helped reunite a family with their wedding gown, three decades after a dry cleaner unknowingly swapped it with a different dress.
When Ame Bartlebaugh opened the box that held the gown her mother and aunt wore to their weddings, she was shocked by what she found inside. Instead of pulling out the sleeveless piece she had admired in so many pictures, she found a lacy dress with a hoop skirt she had never seen before. Turns out, the dry cleaning shop in Willowick, Ohio, her mother took the gown to in 1985 had given her the wrong one in return.
“When we realized what situation we were in, we laughed in disbelief. I mean, there’s nothing we could really do,” Bartlebaugh, 25, tells PEOPLE. “The dry cleaners has been closed for years. I called my aunt and she was shocked and surprised, my mom had a similar reaction. Everyone wondered what to do.”
The family accepted it was unlikely they would ever see the wedding gown again, and while they pondered selling or donating the strange dress that was in front of them, Bartlebaugh couldn’t help but think of the family who originally owned it. Perhaps there was someone else, just like her, who opened up a box expecting to see an important family heirloom, only to be disappointed. She figured she might be able to help.
Bartlebaugh wanted to do her best to find the owner of the gown. Who knows, could they have the dress she was looking for? So, she turned to Facebook on Super Bowl Sunday to post pictures of both dresses in the hopes of finding the family of the one she had in her hands, and, hopefully, her mother’s.
“I had a slim hope of it working,” Bartlebaugh says. “I thought maybe a few friends would share it and that would be it. My plan was in six months, if I couldn’t get a lead, I would donate it to the Angel Gown Program.”
Amazingly, by the end of the day, Bartlebaugh was contacted by a man claiming that the dress belonged to his mother, and he even had proof.
“I wasn’t sure it was real, kinda like a dream where you want to pinch yourself to wake up,”Bartlebaugh recalls. “But when he sent me to pictures of his mom in the dress, I knew we found the right family and wanted to return it ASAP.”
According to the Akron Beacon Journal, the owner, Michelle Havrilla, discovered the mixup about five years ago when rains flooded her basement. She rescued the box from the rising waters and opened it soon after to take her first peek at the dress in more than two decades.
That’s when she uncovered the dry cleaner’s decades-old mistake. Disappointed that she had held on to a stranger’s dress for so long, Havrilla donated it to Goodwill.
The evening after Havrilla’s family picked up the long-lost gown from Bartlebaugh, they surprised her with it at the kitchen table.
“This is not my dress,” she said when presented with the wrapped dry cleaner’s box, which was captured on video. “Are you kidding me, you found it?”
Bartlebaugh says the dress Havrilla had wasn’t her mother’s, and although she is still looking for that dress, she says she was filled with happiness by being able to return one.
“I feel so lucky to have been a part of giving her that happiness,” she says. “I’m a preschool teacher and above all, I try to teach my students kindness. Seeing her so happy made me feel like I’m really living what I’m teaching my students. Being kind is priceless.”
Bartlebaugh, who is getting married December of next year, hopes to find the gown so she could wear it to her own ceremony. It would be a fitting tribute to the friendship and love of her own parents, she says.
“I hope that my marriage is close to what they have,” Bartlebaugh says. “Having the dress and veil would be like giving me a piece of good luck for my own future.”