Riley Hospital for Children offers Angel Gowns to grieving parents

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Riley Hospital for Children is looking for volunteers who are willing to help clean, store and sew old wedding gowns.

The hospital is one of dozens across the country offering a bereavement program to parents. When infants are stillborn or die unexpectedly, the hospital creates lasting memories for the surviving families. They also offer angel gowns so that mourning mothers don’t have to go shopping for a burial outfit.

Judi Gibson, a retired NICU nurse, got the idea for Riley’s program years ago.

“I lost two granddaughters at 24 weeks,” Gibson said. “Isabelle and Hannah. It was 14 years ago. It was done so right for me. People look sometimes at it being morbid, but it’s a way of helping someone through a journey.”

Gibson posted on Facebook, asking if anyone would be interesting in helping. Within two hours, 10 people had donated their dresses. Edith Watts and her sister, Shirley Bryson, responded immediately asking how they could help.

“We’ve always liked to sew,” they told CBS4. “She told me anywhere from the size of a small Coke bottle to a size two.”

The Brown County women offered to volunteer their time. Riley started collecting old wedding dresses and soon, the women began washing and ripping the dresses apart to make the sacred angel gowns.

“With my first one, I cried. I couldn’t help it,” Bryson said. “But you get used it as you go along.”

“You know that you’re making something for somebody that really needs it,” Watts added.

The women told CBS4 they pray over each outfit they make.

Soon, their friend, Shirley Travelstead, started helping as well.

“The one that was the hardest for me to make was one for a little boy,” she recalled.

Travelstead pulled out the card she includes with each custom outfit. She wouldn’t read it, though, because she said the cards make her too emotional. Inside, each one read: “Your sweet little baby was made in God’s image of beauty and love, they are Angels now in heaven above.”

“If it gives a family a small measure of comfort, then I’m happy,” the women agreed. “There is a need.”

Riley Hospital for Children offers the gowns for free. They allow the parents to pick out the outfit of their choice.

Brandy Spurgeon was the first mother at Riley who was part of the bereavement program. She was 37 weeks when her baby, Karolina, was born with nearly no heartbeat.

“I could tell there was something, just different. It felt weird to me but it was my first baby, my first labor so I didn’t really know what to expect,” she remembers.

The umbilical cord prolapsed and doctors said Karolina went without oxygen for too long. Despite Riley’s efforts, the baby girl died three days later.

“She had just a tiny bit of a pulse, but she never did take a breath,” Spurgeon said, looking at photos. “A lot of people loved her.”

The Spurgeons were offered several dresses. They settled on a long, lace gown that had a train on it.

“When they put her in the casket, her dress was so long they had to lay it over the sides,” Spurgeon said. “But it made it so pretty.”

Spurgeon said knowing her child was wrapped in a beautiful gown like that has helped her heal.

“There was so much love. Somebody donated it,” she told CBS4. “There was somebody married in this. Some bride that this was her happiest day. She chose to donate it for your baby.”

Even though the program costs about $9,000 to operate, Riley has since decided to stop funding it. Gibson and the volunteers now work solely off donations.

CBS4 saw firsthand the small, overflowing closet where the group works. While they have plenty of dresses and do not need more at this time, they are asking that if anyone can volunteer some space – or time – it would be appreciated. The program is always grateful for monetary support as well. You can learn more at this website or reach out on Facebook.

“Their baby was alive. Their baby may not be with them for very long time but their baby was here,” Gibson said.