Days after her baby was born prematurely at 19 weeks and died a short time later, Amy Sage had to go shopping in the toy department to purchase doll clothes to fit her tiny child for burial.
Sage, formerly of Nipomo, recalled being given a pamphlet to help with bereavement, suggesting where to buy clothes for a baby too small for even newborn outfits.
“It was very difficult, but there were no other options,” Sage said.
This story and others like it mobilized a group of woman to transform donated wedding dresses into “Angel Gowns for Dignity” so suffering families don’t have to shop while grieving their losses.
“I have three angels in heaven,” Robertson said. “I shared that post on my Facebook page to say how wonderful it is to have an angel gown, how important it is.”
“I didn’t get to dress my children,” Sage added. “I had to drop it (the clothes) off at the mortuary. So I didn’t get that last moment, that one motherly moment that you really desire to have.
"I didn’t get to do those things so when you have the nurses, who are so amazing and wonderful, walk in with this option, I would have died for this option.”
Sage, Robertson and Susan Breshears talked about doing something similar for parents at Marian Regional Medical Center in Santa Maria, where Breshears works as a senior financial analyst for Dignity Health.
Internet research revealed Sage’s story wasn’t unusual. Breshears said she learned that grieving grandmothers and other relatives routinely have to go Target, Toys R Us or other stores for clothes to buy a burial gown for a stillborn baby or a newborn who dies shortly after birth.
“I just didn’t think that was respectful,” Breshears said.
With a few inquiries, Marian officials said they would welcome a similar effort at their Central Coast hospitals, which also include French Hospital Medical Center in San Luis Obispo and Arroyo Grande Community Hospital.
Families will get two gowns — one for the child to wear for photographs and burial and another for the parents to have keepsake of the baby they couldn’t take home. They also are making special outfits for early miscarriages.
“To know where these dresses came from, and to know the loving hands that it went through, brings more comfort than I think anyone will understand,” Sage said, choking up with emotion.
In a short time, they created the group’s own Facebook page, which quickly grew. As of this week, it had topped 600 members.
“Before we even got to asking, people were already offering dresses,” Breshears said.
“I don’t know how this happened so fast, but it’s happening. We’re figuring it out as we go,” Sage said.
While Marian is the first recipient of the local angel gowns — approximately 100 have been delivered there — the use of “dignity” in the group’s name actually refers to what they hope to bring families.
“I kept coming back to want to dignify these children, these families, bring dignity to them,” Breshears said.
“We’re trying to bring dignity to these families, not have them have to find something to bury their children in,” Breshears said. “Nothing is going to ease their pain, but if we can take away a little something of their suffering…”
Marian is the first hospital the group has worked with, but they hope to expand and already have supplied dresses for out-of-state families that had tragic losses.
One recent plea from a friend of friend involved a mom who reportedly collapsed at her baby shower due to an aneurysm. The mom and both babies died, and Angel Gown for Dignity quickly mailed gowns to Florida.
Mary Richards, registered nurse and Newborn ICU clinical nurse specialist, knows just how special angel gown donations are.
“Parents are usually never prepared for the loss of a baby,” Richards said. “The end of life should be as beautiful as the beginning of life, and my prayer is that angel gown donations will honor these little angels and be both a positive and emotional gift for families.”
The group’s members have since delivered angel gowns to other local hospitals including Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center.
“It’s amazing how it’s taken off,” Brushers said. “We’re very humbled by it. We’re overwhelmed by it sometimes because it’s just so generous. Unfortunately, the need is there.
"You can’t do anything about it, but if you can help ease that family’s pain a little bit that’s what we want to try to do. Almost every sewer that I’ve talked to, when they’ve sewed their first dress, they’ve pretty much cried because it’s emotional. You look at it and you know a child’s going to be buried in that dress.”
They hope to create more chapters of Angel Gowns for Dignity so people can provide gowns to their own local hospitals in other states, and are in the process of forming a nonprofit organization to accept donations.
“It’s very clear that this was not a one-time deal,” Sage said. “It’s going to keep going. We would like to help other areas. … We would like to see something that’s more nationally known.”
Along with wedding dress donations, they also have received volunteer help from numerous people with varying levels of sewing ability.
“I don’t think we ever tried to get it going. It just happened. We didn’t know it was going to do this,” Sage said.
The group’s momentum led to a Sewfest-Sewpalooza-Sewnanza on a recent Saturday, which member Toni Balaam organized in just a few days.
Although held in the middle of a three-day holiday weekend, more than a dozen women who sew showed up at the Your Orcutt Youth Organization hall on East Foster Road in Orcutt,equipped with sewing machines, patterns, lace and a big hearts to create angel gowns for babies who don’t survive birth or died shortly afterward.
Sewing machines sat atop tables and folding chairs served as ironing boards in the YOYO Hall as the women worked, occasionally stopped to share tips for crafting the gowns at their first, and not likely the last, Sewfest-Sewpalooza-Sewnanza. One woman even came from Bakersfield to sew.
Before wedding dresses become gowns, Breshears removes the tulle and washes them, applying a healthy dose of stain removal.
“Because it’s Santa Maria, there’s a lot of bean juice issues that go down the front of our wedding dresses,” Breshears said.
The work for a somber purpose still sparked lighthearted banter as the women ironed, cut and sewed.
“What I like about Angel Gowns and women, they don’t make it sad,” Sage said.
Santa Maria resident Patty Payne is one of the most prolific seamstresses, and spent a part of the afternoon giving impromptu tutorials to small groups. She estimated it takes her about an hour to complete a gown, with dozens already done by her alone.
“Patty’s phenomenal. She’s been willing to help everybody,” Breshears said.
Payne sewed dolls and crafted a pattern for tiny bonnets for instances when the child’s skull isn’t full formed. She also has videotaped tutorials for others.
Recruited by her niece, Payne’s involvement in the group has provided some healing after the death of her mother in March.
“She would be proud,” Payne said.
When a woman dropped off a never-worn wedding dress featuring additional adornments, all sewing stopped as the women were drawn to exclaim over the potential angel gowns it could become.
Despite claiming she had already has two other dresses to transform, Payne couldn’t resist her attraction for the new arrival.
“I love the blingy dresses,” she said “As you can tell, I like the bling.”
Another prolific gown maker is Karyn Cleary of Nipomo.
“It just really struck home to me,” she said, adding that along with making dainty angel gowns she also recently crafted rugged saddlebags out of old jeans for Ride Nipomo.
She estimated in early July she had already made 150 gowns. The hardest part is making that first cut into an elaborate wedding dress, according to Cleary.
While the seamstresses work from a basic pattern, each dress is slightly different based on the wedding dress and maker.
“Somebody said today, ‘They’re kind of like snowflakes. There’s not one the same,” Cleary added.
Ariel Rasgado of Grover Beach worked on turning her own wedding dress into angel gowns.
“It’s not emotional until I see what I’m making,” she said “The dress isn’t the marriage. It’s just a dress.”
Not all the members are sewing experts, but still can help. Sage used her skills to create the group’s logo and website.
State Farm insurance agent Donna Randolph offered up her office at 1650 S. Broadway in Santa Maria as a drop-off site for wedding dresses. Others are picking up donated wedding gowns on behalf of the group.
“People are sharing talents they have to offer,” Breshears said.
The group seeks donations of white or off-white lace or ribbon. They also welcome gift cards so those sewing can restock thread, needles and other supplies.
In the middle of the Sewfest-Sewapoolza-Sewnanza, Deb Jeffers of the American Cancer Society stopped by to show the support of women who don’t sew but wanted to help. They gave 15 gift cards at $20 apiece to purchase supplies.
Once there, she found her donated wedding gown in the hands of a seamstress being converted into angels gowns.
Along with comforting families suffering recent losses, the group also is helping women who lost babies decades ago, when such losses often were kept private.
“I’ve been told by quite a few women who have joined this group that they’ve lost children in the '70s and '80s, and they didn’t have this kind of support,” Sage said. “Just the simple fact of donating their dress has healed them.”
“We’re finding this is really healing for some of them because they never really got to mourn the loss of their child,” Breshears added.
To make a contribution in support of the Angel Gowns for Dignity Program, contact the Marian Foundation at 805.739.3595.