There’s an average of one stillbirth or miscarriage every minute in the United States, and it’s often hard for families to find meaningful ways to remember their precious babies. One nonprofit that offers a unique way to give those babies a last hurrah is transforming wedding dresses into angel gowns. Founded by former paramedic Patty Hauer, Sunshine State Angel Gowns creates these bereavement garments to honor the memory of infants who die in childbirth or at any time afterward.
A volunteer seamstress transforms a donated wedding dress into a bereavement gown for an infant who will never get to take his or her first breath. She says it’s comforting for parents to be able to dress their baby in something that once represented the hope and happiness of their marriage.
“They can be used for photos, christenings and burial,” said Melissa Tyo, who works as a nurse in Levine Children’s Hospital of Orange County’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. She oversees the hospital’s Comfort Committee, a team of nurses and doctors that help grieving families. Tyo’s team gives the angel gowns to families in need. “We’ve had many families tell us it was the best way to say goodbye,” she said.
Each gown is hand-sewn and embellished with bridal accents. It can be a simple as a tiny fabric rose or as intricate as embroidered phrases, like “heaven’s angel.” Shirley Schatz, a seamstress from Broadalbin, New York, sews gold and silver bells onto each outfit. She says she’s inspired by Jimmy Stewart’s character in It’s a Wonderful Life, where Clarence the angel rings the bell as he departs to heaven.
The dresses come in all colors and sizes, but each has to be steamed and pressed to look its best. The nonprofit NICU Helping Hands receives many requests for the gowns from hospitals around the country. It takes two hours to create each one, and volunteers make about a dozen from each donated wedding dress. The organization is also working on a similar gown made from men’s shirts, which will be used for boys or girls.
As a volunteer, Missy Ray of Western New York sends the angel gowns to local hospitals and bereavement networks. She doesn’t know who gets the gowns, but she knows her work helps to bring a sliver of comfort to families in need.
To donate your wedding or special occasion dress, or to make a financial contribution, visit NICU Helping Hands’ website. A generous monetary donation includes the golden keepsake angel, a gift box and direct delivery into the hands and hearts of a family in need. (See the video above to see how a bride’s wedding dress was transformed into an angel gown.) You can also help by donating funds to cover the cost of shipping and sewing supplies. Several other organizations nationwide are turning old wedding dresses into saviors for infants who will never be born or who pass away at any age.