Published 2:52 pm Tuesday, March 26, 2019
One by one, the seams come out of intricately designed wedding gowns, succumbing to a seam-ripper in the hands of a deft operator. Lace, sequins, jewels and other embellishments fall out, some saved for later decoration, leaving only broad swaths of fabric that no longer resemble a gown.
Beautifully wrought and wonderfully made, but gone in an instant — just like the lives these transformed wedding gowns will eventually honor.
Nearby, expert hands and humming sewing machines move quickly to give the destruction new purpose. The seamstresses fold, stitch, iron and embellish until they are satisfied. They put the pieces back together in miniature to bring beauty to tragedy.
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All of it was happening in a block of rooms at Western Branch’s Community Church on a winter Saturday. The sew-in group for Kennedy’s Angel Gowns meets every other month to work on transforming donated wedding gowns into burial clothing for lost pregnancies or newborns.
Kennedy’s Angel Gowns is an organization that provides a wide variety of aid to families suffering the loss of a pregnancy or a newborn.
Heather Wilson was about 36 weeks along in her pregnancy with her daughter, Kennedy Milan Wilson, when she suffered a placental abruption on Aug. 17, 2009. She didn’t know what had happened, but she realized her baby was no longer moving and went to the hospital.
“There wasn’t anything small enough to bury her in,” Heather said. Her husband, Demitri, and her mother went out to try to find some clothes, but there was nothing small enough for Kennedy, who weighed only 5 pounds.
“I distinctly remember trying to find Kennedy a dress,” Demitri recalled. “As beautiful as that angel is, she should be in the best.”
Through their tragedy, the Wilsons tried to heal the best they could, but there was still a piece of Kennedy’s story missing.
“We felt there was some kind of purpose,” said Demitri. “We always knew there was a reason. It was hard to see, but we always knew there was a purpose.”
As part of her healing process, Heather felt compelled to make a small burial gown, and she posted a photo of it on Facebook. The response was overwhelming.
“Nurses contacted me from all over,” Heather said.
Soon she was making gowns for other families but couldn’t keep up with the demand on her own. She went to a local quilting shop that had a bee and approached the women there for help. Fran Whitehead and Lee Lillard were among the first to participate.
From there, the nonprofit has grown even larger. There is a fundraiser ball and a 5K run to bring attention to pregnancy and infant loss and to raise money for the cause. The money helps pay for funerals as well as donations to local hospitals of Cuddle Cots and Caring Cradles, which are devices that help grieving families spend more time with their babies in the hospital.
And there are events like the sew-in, which brings in dozens of volunteers every other month.
Wedding gowns are donated by all kinds of brides, from those who have been married for decades and want to bring new purpose to their gowns to those who are going through a divorce and want it out of the house, Heather said.
For most young brides, though, “I think it takes a few years to part with it unless you’ve experienced a loss,” Heather said. At least one volunteer has made a burial gown for a baby from the mother’s own wedding gown.
The burial clothes are made for boys and girls are sent to families who request them all across the United States and sometimes even to other countries, such as Haiti. Shrouds are made for babies who are just too small to put in clothing — usually around 19 weeks’ gestation or younger, Heather said.
The organization also has volunteers who go to hospitals to minister to families who have just suffered a loss.
All of this has come about through the Wilsons’ tragic loss. But not only can they look at the organization now and see Kennedy’s legacy, but they also have more purpose — their rainbow baby, Ryleigh Milan Wilson, 8.
“All we do is for others,” Demetri said. “It’s bringing joy and shining light and giving a voice.”
The third annual Angel Ball is coming up on April 27 and will take place at the Virginia Aquarium in Virginia Beach. Visit www.kennedysangelgowns.com.