Quilters are generous, no question about it. Perhaps it’s not surprising that people who choose to create items of warmth, beauty, and comfort are the same people who share those items, and their time and talents, with those in need.
One group that’s benefitted from the generosity of quilters is NICU Helping Hands, an organization founded in 2010 by Lisa Grubbs and her neonatologist husband Randy Grubbs. The Grubbs knew that babies at the Fort Worth medical center where Randy works received good medical care, but wanted to provide more emotional and educational support. The program has grown to include education and mentoring for NICU families, one-on-one mentoring, a financial assistance program for NICU families, and NICU Mom CONNECT, a post-NICU support group.
In 2013 the Angel Gown® program was added, and that’s where the generosity of quilters (and other talented sewists) comes in. The program supplies gowns and wraps to families experiencing infant loss. These lovingly constructed garments are stitched from donated wedding gowns. The nearly 200 volunteers have stitched around 5,000 gowns and wraps (for babies smaller than one pound) for families experiencing infant loss.
One of those who sews for the Angel Gown® program is Michelle Patrella of Florida. “Some in our group are quilters, some are professional seamstresses, others sew costumes for productions or are certified trainers in sewing techniques,” says Michelle, who learned about the program through an online article and has been sewing for Angel Gowns® for 2 ½ years. “I don’t think anyone doesn’t know someone—a sister or mom or best friend—who’s been affected by prematurity or an ill child. No one likes to talk about it, but it happens. It’s wonderful to make something useful at the same time I’m doing something I love.”
While sewing may be fun, creating the gowns is an exacting process. “The items we gift to families are beautifully constructed and go through a strict quality control process,” says Lisa. “We know when families open the package they want it to be special and perfect for their baby.” To that end, the Angel Gown program holds an annual sewing retreat to teach the skills and techniques for creating the gowns. This year, 65 women came to the Dallas-Fort Worth area for lectures, participatory sessions, and camaraderie. “The gowns may be small, but the precision required and the seriousness of the purpose, those can be challenging,” says Michelle. “It’s great to be able to share tips and photos.”
Attendees traveled from California, Minnesota, Florida, Arkansas and Alabama on their own dime. In addition to travel expenses for the retreat, sewists donate their own thread and tools, the cost of maintaining their machines, and the postage to ship their completed gowns to Fort Worth, where the quality control team inspects and packages them. A silent auction was held at the retreat and even those who couldn’t attend were able to participate (Moda donated much-appreciated precuts to the auction). The proceeds went to defray another expense—the cost of shipping the gowns and wraps to the hospitals and families who request them.
The Angel Gown program supplies gowns and wraps to hospitals, individuals, and funeral homes in 48 states. “When you do something like this, I believe you should do it with excellence and our seamstresses do,” says Lisa. “They are committed, kind, and generous women (and one man). It’s awesome.”
Michelle Patrella, who has sewn around 200 gowns and wraps, enjoys volunteering for Angel Gowns because she can work at her own pace. “I work full time and so my involvement varies—I might spend two hours after work or 12 hours on the weekend,” she says. But there’s much more than convenience at play here. “When you hear stories from people with personal experience of infant loss you realize how much you’ve made a difference. We don’t do it for thanks, we do it for comfort, but to know that you personally touched someone means a lot.”
For more information about NICU Helping Hands, including information on their programs and volunteer opportunities, visit their website http://www.nicuhelpinghands.org (The organization is working through a backlog of wedding gowns and not accepting additional gowns until further notice.)