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June 26, 2019

Social work professor’s bridal shop helps those living with cancer

August 13, 2018

Social work professor’s bridal shop helps those living with cancer

Faculty/Staff Spotlight

Topic: Campus News

Barb Hiltz understands the healing power of a wedding dress.

As co-founder of The Brides Project in Ann Arbor, Hiltz collects donated wedding dresses and sells them at a heavily discounted price to brides. All proceeds go toward the Cancer Support Community of Greater Ann Arbor, which provides free emotional support and education to people with cancer, their caregivers and other loved ones.

Hiltz’s initiative is modeled off The Brides’ Project in Canada, which was founded by Helen Sweet in 2004.

Prior to U-M, Hiltz, clinical assistant professor of social work and director of the Master of Social Work program, worked in the nonprofit sector as an executive director. She became interested in the notion of social enterprise — market or business-driven approaches that solve societal problems — as a way to create a sustainable source of revenue for nonprofits to fund services.

Barb Hiltz, clinical assistant professor of social work and director of the Master of Social Work program, is co-founder of The Brides Project in Ann Arbor. (Photo by Scott C. Soderberg, Michigan Photography)

With many nonprofits offering free services and roughly 80 percent of the philanthropic dollars in the nonprofit sector donated by individuals, Hiltz said nonprofits need to constantly hunt for funds in order to keep services available to communities.

“In my mind, when you provide a service to the community, I want to be able to ensure the community that not only are we here for you today, we’re here for you two years from now and 10 years from that,” Hiltz said. “Sustainable revenue is one way that we can do that.”

When she moved to Michigan and became executive director of the Cancer Support Community of Greater Ann Arbor, her dream of creating a social enterprise came true.

Hiltz co-founded Ann Arbor’s The Brides Project with Monique Sluymers, who originally decided to bring the enterprise to Michigan after learning of the one in Canada.

Since September 2011, The Brides Project in Ann Arbor has collected donated gowns from across the United States. Staffed by volunteer bridal consultants, the average cost of a dress is about $500, and the proceeds now fund about a quarter of the Cancer Support Community’s operating budget.

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“To be able to come together and meet other people who support you … because they’ve walked that same path, is incredibly powerful,” Hiltz said.

Hiltz said being part of The Brides Project has helped inform her teaching at the School of Social Work, where she teaches management classes for those who want to lead organizations.

She said she loves being a part of something fun that helps those in need.

“I think that’s meaningful to the brides too — that their purchase for their really happy day can help somebody who might be at their lowest.”

Q & A

What moment in the classroom stands out as the most memorable?

I'm not sure I have just one. I always love the first day of class. Everyone is excited and eager, but a little nervous. Every class I've taught has had a slightly different personality — and I think it is largely shaped in those opening classes.

What can't you live without?

I have a pillow that I've had since I was a kid. My husband tells me that keeping a pillow that long is gross and sends me scientific articles to prove it. I can't part with it.

Where is your favorite spot on campus?

I walk or bike to campus every day. I like the path through the Law Quad between State and Tappan. It is a peaceful spot just before I start my busy day.

What inspires you?

Different things inspire me at different moments. Right now, it's my daughter. She is 8 and learning at an incredible pace. She is curious about everything. I want to bottle that up and take a little with me!

What are you currently reading?

“The Windup Girl” by Paolo Bacigalupi. Someone told me recently that it is his favorite piece of science fiction so I had to pick it up.

Who had the biggest/greatest influence on your career path?

My dad. He introduced me to social work and encouraged me to consider it as a career path. He himself was an administrator for social services in our region in central Canada. He is smart and caring — an all-around excellent human. I hope I make him proud.