It began, like many Facebook requests do, with a tentative, heartfelt plea:
“I know this is a longshot …” Angela Selleck wrote on July 20 in the “Pay it Forward Lawrence Kansas” group.
Angela’s son Ryan Selleck and then-fiancee Amanda are expecting a baby in September and wanted to get married, but they couldn’t afford a wedding. Ryan has been unable to work because of a recent traumatic brain injury, and Amanda, a cook at a local nursing home, didn’t make enough for such a luxury.
Amanda and Ryan had resigned themselves to getting hitched at the courthouse without any to-do. But Angela wanted more for them.
Angela, a housekeeper and direct-care worker, couldn’t afford to pay for the wedding, either. But she wanted her son and his fiancee to experience the ceremony and celebration that comes with it.
So she took the risk and turned to the community on Facebook.
“I asked for the help, but we’re not used to asking or receiving help,” Angela said. “It’s a real struggle because my son thinks it’s a pity party because of his brain injury.”
Offers trickled in. One person offered to officiate; another said she would take photos. People pulled old floral decor and votive candles from their closets.
Still, Angela worried about paying for the dress, the decor, the cake, the reception, the honeymoon. She was worried the couple would have to do without these elements. And then the person who’d offered to officiate backed out.
Much more help was needed. A miracle, even.
“That’s when we met our beautiful savior,” Angela said.
Meet Mali Benvenutti. She doesn’t even live in Lawrence, but she watches the “Pay It Forward Lawrence” group from her home in Illinois because of her ties to Lawrence, where she lived between 2013 and 2015.
Benvenutti was raised in a generous family. As a child 30 years ago, she remembers her mother hearing that a woman at a nearby table in a restaurant had just lost everything in a California fire that had destroyed thousands of homes.
“My mom told the waitress that she would cover her tab and to avoid any potential embarrassment, she asked the waitress to tell the lady it was on the house,” Benvenutti recalled.
Her mother’s generosity shaped Benvenutti. A self-described romantic, she felt invested in the wedding and committed to its success — even though she lived 400 miles away and had no connection to the bride or groom.
“This was the universe telling me [I’m] in the right place at the right time,” Benvenutti said.
She messaged Angela: “I’d like to help you out.”
She offered to buy a $75 wedding cake from Walmart. That felt like a win for Angela, but Benvenutti wasn’t done: she also came up with the money for champagne flutes and wedding decorations, a suit for the groom, a sunflower headpiece for the bride, and even a maternity dress for Amanda’s baby shower.
“The reason I’ve been focusing so much on pay-it-forward groups is because the rest of the world is so chaotic right now,” Benvenutti said. “Hyper-partisan politics are making us more divided than ever. I wanted to focus on something that I could do to make a positive difference in someone’s life and hopefully inspire others to do the same.”
Benvenutti even solved the problem of the missing officiant: her mother performed a commitment ceremony via Zoom, and Benvenutti pre-recorded herself singing “These Arms of Mine,” which she and her husband danced to at their own wedding in May 2017 in Lawrence.
As a final touch, Benvenutti decided she wanted to somehow provide a honeymoon suite for the newlyweds.
“I got the idea of the honeymoon package from my mom, who did something similar for me when I got married,” Benvenutti said. “It was a very sweet touch that I thought the couple would appreciate.”
Benvenutti asked a Lawrence friend, Travis Tozer, if he would use his Holiday Inn rewards points to pay for a honeymoon suite. He agreed.
“I’ve known Mali for almost 10 years and she has always been the kind of person who would go the extra mile for someone in need,” Tozer said. “She’s also an old-school romantic, and so a wedding was an irresistible opportunity for her to pay it forward.”
Benvenutti wasn’t the only one who helped with the wedding — another Lawrence resident helped pay for an inexpensive dress, and a national chain deli catered the reception for free — but she certainly was its linchpin.
The couple wed on Aug. 6 at Wells Overlook.
“Honestly we wanted to get married before the baby came — that way we all share the same last name,” Ryan said. “We were just going to go to the courthouse and get it done real quick and it turned into something I definitely did not imagine.
“It was just amazing, and we really appreciate it.”
Benvenutti feels that seeing the post and having the resources to help was serendipitous.
“Everyone is going to be in a tight spot at some point. Those people who help you out are what keep you going,” she said. “I’m also a crazy hopeful romantic, and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to be someone’s fairy godmother.”
If our local journalism matters to you, please help us keep doing this work.
Don’t miss a beat … Click here to sign up for our email newsletters
Chansi Long (she/her) reported for The Lawrence Times from July 2022 through August 2023. Read more of her work for the Times here.