Flint Twp., MI—Friends and family of Sharonel Williams, a former Flint bridal shop owner and teacher, have opened a free wedding and prom dress boutique in honor of their loved one’s legacy.

“She turned 45 this year,” Keiome Williams said of why now, nine years after her passing, felt like the right time to give away the hundreds of brand new dresses he’d been holding on to from his late wife’s shop, Royal Elegance.”She had always been one to help others,” he said. “She just had a giving heart.”

The free wedding and prom dress boutique, called A Gift From Above, opened earlier this month at Flint Wall Street, located at 3573 Beecher Road.

There, racks of color-coordinated dresses in every hue line an elevated stage, shiny magenta streamers and star decorations hang from the ceiling, and “today’s top hits” play softly from a nearby speaker.

“We wanted it to feel like a store,” said Tonya Jones, who is helping Williams run A Gift From Above. “You know, bring your friend, feel comfortable, take your time.”

Jones insisted throughout a tour of the boutique area that nothing about its foundation story should be about her.

“It loses sight of what it’s for, that’s what I feel,” she said, nodding toward a table full of memorabilia from Sharonel’s life.

The table, at the base of the boutique’s stage, displays Sharonel’s accomplishments: a bachelor’s from Grand Valley State, a teaching certificate from Eastern Michigan University, a master’s from Marygrove College. There’s a 2003 article about the opening of Royal Elegance and several photos of Sharonel smiling with friends and family.

Prom and wedding dresses from the “A Gift From Above” pop-up at Flint Wall Street in Flint Township, Mich. on March 23, 2022. The dresses are free to anyone in need and are from the late Sharonel Williams, who owned a shop called Royal Elegance. Tonya Jones, along with Williams’ family, are donating the dresses to honor Williams. (KT Kanazawich | Flint Beat)

Taking it all together—the decorations, the stage, the music, the memories—the space feels like walking into a celebration of Sharonel’s life as much as a dress shop.

“When you go there, the love and compassion that you feel in your heart, I mean, that’s coming from them,” said Carla Reynolds, who visited A Gift From Above earlier this month.

Reynolds, who has been married to her husband for 28 years, is planning a vow renewal in 2023. She said she isn’t in a financial position to purchase a new dress, so when she read on Facebook that a free wedding dress was an option, she came up from Detroit to take a look.

“I decided to call,” she said. “And I went there, and man, they were such problem solvers.”

Reynolds ended up getting not just a wedding dress, but bridesmaid dresses, a flower girl dress, and items she hadn’t even thought to ask about.

“To top it off, they gave me a veil, a bouquet,” she said. “They gave me ideas, and put it all together for me. … They did great work.”

When asked why he made the decision to set up a free dress boutique instead of trying to sell or donate the dresses, Williams deferred to Jones’ thoughtfulness and his late wife’s memory.

“Tonya, she most definitely presented this,” he said of the boutique.

Williams explained that he had planned to give Royal Elegance’s stored inventory to Goodwill or another charity at first, but when Jones offered to help out at Flint Wall Street, he knew that would be a better way to continue Sharonel’s legacy.

“That was pretty much the initial reason for this giveaway: to honor her,” Williams said.

He talked about his late wife’s days as a teacher at Academy of Flint and several other Flint and Beecher schools, a time when her students would often confide in her before their parents.

Prom and wedding dresses from the “A Gift From Above” pop-up at Flint Wall Street in Flint Township, Mich. on March 23, 2022. The dresses are free to anyone in need and are from the late Sharonel Williams, who owned a shop called Royal Elegance. Tonya Jones, along with Williams’ family, are donating the dresses to honor Williams. (KT Kanazawich | Flint Beat)

He said he knew that she’d want to continue to help those students reach their dreams even after “her homegoing,” and giving them something beautiful to wear to homecoming or prom was still possible in opening a free dress boutique.

“She had just one of the most beautiful hearts,” Williams said with a smile. “She wouldn’t want nothing more than to do this.”

As a final part of honoring his late wife’s memory, Williams brought Sharonel’s mother and grandmother, Stephanie and Patsy Payton, to see the boutique.

“I didn’t know he was doing this, and when he took us up there, of course my heart just went out,” said Stephanie Payton. “I thought it was a brilliant idea.”

A Gift From Above is located at 3573 Beecher Road and open by appointment, which can be made by calling (810) 908-0792. Williams and Jones said they do not have a set timeframe for their pop-up boutique, but instead plan to run it until all dresses have been claimed.

Patsy Payton (left) and Stephanie Payton visit A Gift From Above boutique in Flint Township, Mich. The pair are respectively the grandmother and mother of the late Sharonel Williams whose former bridal shop, Royal Elegance, provided the free dresses on offer at A Gift From Above. (Photo courtesy Tonya Jones)

Kate Stockrahm

Kate is Flint Beat's business and nonprofit reporter. She joins the team as a corps member of Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered...