Angel Gowns for Newborns Who Die in the NICU

Many women treasure their wedding dresses, passing them down to future generations. But a group of selfless brides from all over the country are donating theirs for a different purpose: making gowns that will comfort families who lose their babies before they leave the hospital.

The nonprofit organization Angel Gowns turns old wedding gowns into burial garments for newborns who die in the NICU. Hundreds of volunteers across the country sew these garments for families who will never get to see their child’s first and last moments in this world. Each dress is repurposed into about 10 little outfits, and every stitch, every detail makes the gown unique.

Several volunteers came to Your Orcutt Youth Organization hall on East Foster Road in Orcutt equipped with sewing machines, patterns and lace. Some travelled hours to take part in the group’s first Sewfest-Sewpalooza-Sewnanza, which was held Friday through Sunday.

Judi Soholt, a retired labor and delivery nurse from the NICU at Riley Hospital in Golden Valley, began her journey with Angel Gowns a few years ago after seeing an article about the project on Facebook. The story struck a chord with her, especially because she lost a baby son at 18 weeks gestation while working as a labor and delivery nurse in Iowa. “I remember the grief and loss that parents experience,” she says. “I want to help prevent families from having to go through the lost and found tub at the hospital, or having to buy clothes for their baby.”

Soholt now leads a team of 44 seamstresses who work on angel gowns in her home in Marysville. She says she gets a lot of support from her community, and she has even started an online fundraiser to raise money for a new machine to speed up the process. The fundraising goal is $20,000.

Aside from the dresses, each outfit also comes with two tiny hats and a small pillow. Volunteers like Edith Breshears, who has been sewing angel gowns for the past nine months, spend a lot of time stitching words or phrases onto each dress — such as “heaven’s angel” and “our sweet angel.” Shirley Bryson, another seamstress, adds antique buttons from her collection. She recently sewed gold and silver bells on each piece, inspired by the ending of It’s A Wonderful Life, when Jimmy Stewart’s character rings the bell to help Clarence the angel receive his wings.

The outfits are then donated to hospitals, bereavement groups and funeral homes. Each kit contains a special gown, blanket, two hats and memorial trinkets. The organization has already sent thousands of them to places in Western New York, and they are also used by a handful of hospitals in North Carolina.

The NICU at Pomona Valley Hospital Medical Center in Pomona is one of those locations, and the staff here is grateful for this beautiful gift. “We can’t thank these ladies enough,” NICU Maternal-Child Education Coordinator Deb Oldakowski says. “They have brought a smile to the faces of our tiniest patients and their families.” To learn more about the Angel Gowns program or how you can help, click here.