This afternoon, I walked into Sunshine State Angel Gowns’ workshop, my treasured wedding gown in hand. I listened as the organization’s founder, Virginia Cortes, explained how my wedding dress would be taken apart and re-created.
“You have your lace on top with the netting, and then you have another netting underneath, and then you have satin,” she said. “So, we’re gonna create three different kinds of gowns out of this.”
But Cortes wasn’t talking about more wedding gowns.
She was talking about angel gowns.
What are angel gowns?
Angel gowns are burial and viewing gowns for miscarried or stillborn babies, little ones lost in their first years of living, and the youngest of the world’s angels. Whether a pregnancy ends in loss at 20 weeks or a little one passes away at 20 months, Sunshine State Angels Gowns is there to make sure that no grieving parent is ever without a gown for their angel.
“To me, it is the first step to healing, for them to receive this,” Cortes explains as she shows me a blue gown and its matching bonnet. For many families who receive an angel gown or wrap, she says families don’t even know where to find clothes small enough for their tiny baby.
Now in its third official year, Sunshine State Angel Gowns turns donated wedding gowns and bridesmaid dresses into angel gowns, memory blankets, and wraps for grieving parents experiencing the loss of a pregnancy, baby, or child. As the name suggests, Sunshine State Angel Gowns tries to be the first ray of healing – that first glimpse of sunshine – in a parent’s storm.
Having lost her oldest son, Robert, Jr. (“Tito”,) due to complications from cerebral palsy, Cortes is no stranger to this loss. While working with moms who are experiencing similar grief can be difficult, she says that it’s also an important part of her own healing process.
“As hard as it is sometimes…I go through healing with them at the same time. I love to be there for them.”
This sense of community in loss is especially important to grieving mothers and fathers. Sunshine State Angel Gowns is a member of the Pregnancy and Infant Loss Resource (PILR) Network, a Central Florida partnership of counselors, professionals, individuals, and organizations that aid parents through pregnancy and infant loss. It’s important to let parents know that they aren’t enduring their pain by themselves, that there’s a network of people ready to help.
“Everyone grieves in a different way,” Cortes explains. “You just have to look out for help. You’re not alone…we’re all here for you.”
Dressing the littlest angels: memory blankets, wraps, and angel gowns
Memory blankets are for the smallest angels, the early miscarriages where the memory blanket can oftentimes be the only thing that a mother takes with her from the hospital. Some parents choose to display the memory blanket in a shadow box, others choose to keep it as a special memory of their lost one. In every case, the blanket serves as a marker for a loss that might otherwise might not have been recognized.
For little ones who are still too small for full angel gowns, Cortes and her team of volunteers create wraps – each with its own tiny blanket and hat. These wraps offer parents the opportunity to hold their baby, to take pictures, and to spend precious time together. Like the memory blankets and the angel gowns, the wraps also come with a beaded angel and a poem for the parents to keep.
Angel gowns are for stillborn babies and for children who pass away in their first few years of life. In the hospital, a nurse can bring the baby to his or her parents already dressed in their gown, or parents can dress their baby themselves. Each gown comes with a matching cap/bonnet or headband.
Some gowns are created to look like miniature suits, others look like angelic dresses. No two creations from Sunshine State Angel Gowns are the same, and the team of volunteer seamstresses work hard to put personal touches into each blanket, wrap, and gown. In every case, the same intricate detail and love that went into the original wedding dress is passed into the tiny gowns that it becomes.
Where the gowns go: serving Florida families
While Sunshine State Angel Gowns operates out of its Altamonte Springs office, the organization reaches families in need across the entire state.
Cortes works directly with multiple hospitals like Winnie Palmer Hospital, Florida Hospital, Tallahassee Memorial, and beyond, ensuring that each hospital has gowns, blankets, and wraps readily available for a family in their moment of need. When supplies run low, Cortes personally delivers more items to that hospital. Sunshine State Angel Gowns also works with numerous emergency rooms to provide memorial blankets for mothers experiencing a miscarriage.
If their hospital doesn’t yet have angel gowns, individuals can directly reach out to Sunshine State Angel Gowns to request an item, either for themselves or on behalf of a family member or friend. Everything given to a grieving parent is completely free, and any family experiencing the loss of a child can request an angel gown.
“We’re doing it because we want to help,” says Cortes. “We want to be there in the middle of that storm, to start that healing.”
How you can help: what makes Sunshine State Angel Gowns possible
Sunshine State Angel Gowns is entirely run by volunteers from Orlando to Arkansas. New volunteers are always welcome, and no sewing experience is required. Cortes will teach anyone who is willing to spend a few hours with her at a sewing machine, and she’s always available via FaceTime for extra guidance.
Sewing can be done from home with nothing more than a basic sewing machine: volunteers either pick up supplies in person at the Altamonte Springs workshop, or Sunshine State Angel Gowns will ship supplies to volunteers located farther away (they’ll pay for volunteers to ship completed items back to the workshop for final touches and packaging.)
The organization also hosts regular volunteer days, where the workshop opens its doors to anyone willing to help for an afternoon. Each volunteer day is different, whether the need for that day is to take apart wedding gowns or to sort all different types of fabrics and beading, but snacks are served and the afternoon is a relaxed, friendly one. For more information on upcoming volunteer days, visit their Facebook page.
Monetary donations are always needed to help pay for supplies and shipping costs, and can be made via PayPal or check (click here for more info.) The organization also accepts gift cards to craft retailers like Hobby Lobby, JOANN Fabric and Craft Stores, and Michaels Stores. Note: because Sunshine State Angel Gowns purchases many supplies through wholesale, check and PayPal donations are the easiest way for the organization to buy the most supplies for the lowest cost.
For those looking to support a good cause while also enjoying an afternoon out, the organization’s annual fundraiser is taking place on Sunday, September 16th. Hosted at Rhythm and Smooth in Casselberry, the lunch event runs from 1pm – 4pm and includes a silent auction. Click here to purchase tickets, sponsor the event, or to contribute items for the silent auction.
If anyone has a wedding gown or bridesmaid dress to donate, Sunshine State Angel Gowns accepts ivory/white wedding gowns and bridesmaid gowns in colors: lavender, pale pink, pale blue, navy blue, and peach. For more information on donating a gown (either in person or shipping,) click here.
Shining sunlight through the clouds
Even though the mission is a difficult one, Cortes is committed to providing free gowns and memorial blankets to Florida parents in need. I ask her if it ever becomes too much to bear, if sewing so many gowns and blankets for babies who never grow up ever becomes too overwhelming.
She shakes her head, no. The loss will always be there, but at least she and her team of volunteers can give the first touch of humanity and dignity to a family’s loss. As she sees it, Sunshine State Angel Gowns is fortunate to have this difficult privilege.
“If you have the heart to put something together, knowing that a mother in need is going to receive it – that’s the biggest blessing you can receive.”