STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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State of Opportunity will be shining a spotlight on the issue of infant mortality this winter. Check back for news, resources, and personal stories.

Here's how old wedding dresses are bringing comfort to grieving parents

Paulette Parker
Michigan Radio
"Angel gowns" from Angels Above Baby Gowns

Angels Above Baby Gowns takes all those dresses you only wear once and put away, like wedding and bridesmaid gowns, or prom dresses – and turn them into burial gowns for babies. They call them "angel gowns." Then, they give them to parents and hospitals, for free.

Dawn Lafferty started Angels Above two years ago after reading a news story about a mom in the state of Washington whose son died at birth. The mom went home and made a gown to bury him in out of her old wedding dress. Lafferty, who has been sewing since she was 10 years old, says she thought it was a great idea.

So, she put a post on Facebook saying that she wanted to start her own group to do the same thing.

"Within minutes, my friend says, ‘I’m in, do you need me to bring sewing machines? What do you need?’ And I said, 'No we have all of the sewing machines we need. We just need to get started.' Within a couple of days, we were up and running," Lafferty said.

Now, the entire basement of her home in Garden City, Michigan is all Angels Above. That’s where dresses are unpacked, photographed, washed, and taken apart. They use every part of the dress. Lace becomes embellishments. Beads are used to make “angel jewelry.”

Dresses come in the mail, or get dropped off every day. They get about 50 a week, Lafferty says. About 30 people volunteer with Angels Above. They all do it for free. Even some of the parents who have received dresses have come back to volunteer.

"I’ve become friends with some of the families who have lost their children. And they come over and we’ve let them pick out their gowns. But then we’ve stayed friends," Lafferty said.

Heather Sabbagh is one of those moms. We met for coffee and she brought a small pink box. Inside she keeps ultrasound pictures, a card with baby footprints, a hospital onesie. And in a plastic bag, a tiny ivory and purple dress, with a beaded embellishment on the chest.

Credit Heather Sabbagh

"This is just one that my friend actually picked up from Dawn personally," Sabbagh said.

Sabbagh’s friend picked up the gown for her baby, Ayla Rose. She died last October when Sabbagh was 38 weeks pregnant.

Sabbagh had a placental abruption, when the placenta detaches from the uterus. She spent four days in the hospital, and almost died. Her daughter’s funeral was the day after she was discharged.

Sabbagh says she never had time to plan anything – it all just happened. She says she was happy to have the angel gown because she wanted people to see Ayla Rose, so they could know what she looked like and who she was.

"So I’m glad that she looked really pretty. Because it probably would have just been this hospital onesie if that would have not been planned out for me," says Sabbagh.

Now she volunteers with Angels Above, she says, to be around people who understand what she went through – and is really still going through.

The scissors, thread, and sewing machines, even the cost of shipping the gowns, it all adds up. Angels Above volunteers pay for what they need with donations, and out their own pockets. But Lafferty says the impact it has on the families she helps makes it worth it.

"It just brings joy to them. It helps them have a little bit better closure that their baby’s not forgotten and that their baby will always be remembered," she said.

But sewing helps Lafferty, too. She’s medically disabled, and says it helps her cope.

"It gives me something to do so I’m not just sitting around watching TV. I don’t sit down all day. And then that way I don’t have to take the pain meds. It’s just kind of a distraction," she said.

For every 1,000 babies that are born in Michigan, about seven die before their first birthday. And even though that number is falling, that’s still almost 800 babies each year.

So Lafferty and her group can use all the help they can get.

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