She lost her father 10 years ago but reunited with his heart on her wedding day.

The day before her wedding, Jeni Stepien was probably a little more anxious and excited than most brides-to-be — with good reason.

She was about to meet Arthur Thomas, the man who was going to walk her down the aisle, for the very first time.


Jeni on her wedding day. Photo by Lauren Renee Designs, used with permission.

Jeni lost her father, Michael, 10 years ago. He was tragically murdered during a robbery.

While he was on life support, Michael's family was informed that it was his wish to have all his organs that could be useful to others donated.

They were incredibly supportive of his decision, so within 48 hours, his heart and kidneys were given to two people who were in dire need of them.

Arthur Thomas was one of those people.

Thomas received Michael's heart in the nick of time.

Thomas (or Tom, as they call him) was days away from dying himself, Jeni tells Upworthy. He had been waiting for years for a heart, and her dad's was a literal lifeline.

Jeni's mom and dad with her as a baby. Photo via Jeni Stepien, used with permission.

Needless to say, Tom was incredibly grateful, but he also recognized that the Stepien family was going through a considerable grieving period.

Tom waited until Christmas of that year to send the Stepien family a thank-you letter.

Jeni's mother wrote back immediately, and for two years the family exchanged letters with Tom through CORE (Center for Organ Recovery and Education) before agreeing to have an open communication.

Understandably, Jeni says, in the beginning, their relationship wasn't the easiest.

"I wanted my father to be there so badly," Jeni explains. "There were times, right after my father's passing, when I would feel so cheated by the man who took this experience from me. But then I would think of Tom and how much love there was surrounding him."

When Jeni got engaged, she knew it was time to finally meet Tom face-to-face.

"As soon as I got engaged, I thought, 'But who will walk me down the aisle?'" Jeni recounts. "I thought instantly of Tom, and how special and meaningful it would be to be able to bring everything full circle for my mom and sister, as well — and for Tom."

Jeni and her now-husband, Paul Maenner. Photo by Lauren Renee Designs.

In a letter, she asked Tom if he'd be willing to take on the important role in her wedding. A few days later he called and tearfully accepted.

The two would officially meet just one day before the impending nuptials.

Everyone was anxious to meet Tom, but the family couldn't think of a more perfect and loving occasion.

When Jeni finally saw Tom at the church in her hometown of Swissvale, Pennsylvania, she knew he was meant to be with her and her soon-to-be-husband, Paul, on their big day.

Jeni and Tom at the wedding rehearsal. Photo by Lauren Renee Designs.

"Tom has a presence about him, like my father did when he was in the room. Everyone wants to be near those people, and likes them instantly," Jeni tells Upworthy.

Jeni says she felt her dad with her throughout her wedding — a milestone in her life that would not have been complete without him there in some way.

Jeni dancing with Tom. Photo by Lauren Renee Designs.

Jeni hopes sharing her experience will help other families that have lost a loved one see what extraordinary things organ donation can do.

She does recognize, however, that making such a decision is not always easy.

"I know that the grief can be so intense that you can't imagine life without your loved one. It can be hard to make that call," Jeni says, offering words of advice for anyone in a similar situation.

I urge people to have this conversation openly with your loved ones about your thoughts on organ donation. [My family] focused on helping people, and that actually eased our grief significantly as we adjusted to life without my father."

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When Sue Hoppin was in college, she met the man she was going to marry. "I was attending the University of Denver, and he was at the Air Force Academy," she says. "My dad had also attended the University of Denver and warned me not to date those flyboys from the Springs."

"He didn't say anything about marrying one of them," she says. And so began her life as a military spouse.

The life brings some real advantages, like opportunities to live abroad — her family got to live all around the US, Japan, and Germany — but it also comes with some downsides, like having to put your spouse's career over your own goals.

"Though we choose to marry someone in the military, we had career goals before we got married, and those didn't just disappear."

Career aspirations become more difficult to achieve, and progress comes with lots of starts and stops. After experiencing these unique challenges firsthand, Sue founded an organization to help other military spouses in similar situations.

Sue had gotten a degree in international relations because she wanted to pursue a career in diplomacy, but for fourteen years she wasn't able to make any headway — not until they moved back to the DC area. "Eighteen months later, many rejections later, it became apparent that this was going to be more challenging than I could ever imagine," she says.

Eighteen months is halfway through a typical assignment, and by then, most spouses are looking for their next assignment. "If I couldn't find a job in my own 'hometown' with multiple degrees and a great network, this didn't bode well for other military spouses," she says.

She's not wrong. Military spouses spend most of their lives moving with their partners, which means they're often far from family and other support networks. When they do find a job, they often make less than their civilian counterparts — and they're more likely to experience underemployment or unemployment. In fact, on some deployments, spouses are not even allowed to work.

Before the pandemic, military spouse unemployment was 22%. Since the pandemic, it's expected to rise to 35%.

Sue eventually found a job working at a military-focused nonprofit, and it helped her get the experience she needed to create her own dedicated military spouse program. She wrote a book and started saving up enough money to start the National Military Spouse Network (NMSN), which she founded in 2010 as the first organization of its kind.

"I founded the NMSN to help professional military spouses develop flexible careers they could perform from any location."

"Over the years, the program has expanded to include a free digital magazine, professional development events, drafting annual White Papers and organizing national and local advocacy to address the issues of most concern to the professional military spouse community," she says.

Not only was NMSN's mission important to Sue on a personal level she also saw it as part of something bigger than herself.

"Gone are the days when families can thrive on one salary. Like everyone else, most military families rely on two salaries to make ends meet. If a military spouse wants or needs to work, they should be able to," she says.

"When less than one percent of our population serves in the military," she continues, "we need to be able to not only recruit the best and the brightest but also retain them."

"We lose out as a nation when service members leave the force because their spouse is unable to find employment. We see it as a national security issue."

"The NMSN team has worked tirelessly to jumpstart the discussion and keep the challenges affecting military spouses top of mind. We have elevated the conversation to Congress and the White House," she continues. "I'm so proud of the fact that corporations, the government, and the general public are increasingly interested in the issues affecting military spouses and recognizing the employment roadblocks they unfairly have faced."

"We have collectively made other people care, and in doing so, we elevated the issues of military spouse unemployment to a national and global level," she adds. "In the process, we've also empowered military spouses to advocate for themselves and our community so that military spouse employment issues can continue to remain at the forefront."

Not only has NMSN become a sought-after leader in the military spouse employment space, but Sue has also seen the career she dreamed of materializing for herself. She was recently invited to participate in the public re-launch of Joining Forces, a White House initiative supporting military and veteran families, with First Lady Dr. Jill Biden.

She has also had two of her recommendations for practical solutions introduced into legislation just this year. She was the first in the Air Force community to show leadership the power of social media to reach both their airmen and their military families.

That is why Sue is one of Tory Burch's "Empowered Women" this year. The $5,000 donation will be going to The Madeira School, a school that Sue herself attended when she was in high school because, she says, "the lessons I learned there as a student pretty much set the tone for my personal and professional life. It's so meaningful to know that the donation will go towards making a Madeira education more accessible to those who may not otherwise be able to afford it and providing them with a life-changing opportunity."

Most military children will move one to three times during high school so having a continuous four-year experience at one high school can be an important gift. After traveling for much of her formative years, Sue attended Madeira and found herself "in an environment that fostered confidence and empowerment. As young women, we were expected to have a voice and advocate not just for ourselves, but for those around us."

To learn more about Tory Burch and Upworthy's Empowered Women program visit https://www.toryburch.com/empoweredwomen/. Nominate an inspiring woman in your community today!

Vanna White appeared on "The Price Is Right" in 1980.

Vanna White has been a household name in the United States for decades, which is kind of hilarious when you consider how she gained her fame and fortune. Since 1982, the former model and actress has made millions walking back and forth turning letters (and later simply touching them—yay technology) on the game show "Wheel of Fortune."

That's it. Walking back and forth in a pretty evening gown, flipping letters and clapping for contestants. More on that job in a minute…

As a member of Gen X, television game shows like "Wheel of Fortune" and "The Price is Right" send me straight back to my childhood. Watching this clip from 1980 of Vanna White competing on "The Price is Right" two years before she started turning letters on "Wheel of Fortune" is like stepping into a time machine. Bob Barker's voice, the theme music, the sound effects—I swear I'm home from school sick, lying on the ugly flowered couch with my mom checking my forehead and bringing me Tang.

This video has it all: the early '80s hairstyles, a fresh-faced Vanna White and Bob Barker's casual sexism that would never in a million years fly today.

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