Joy Rodriguez carefully begins to disassemble an exquisite wedding gown, a gown that symbolized love, happiness and hope. The purpose of taking apart this beautiful gown is bittersweet, for this gown and many others that are donated to the NICU Helping Hands’ Angel Gowns Program will be made into beautiful burial gowns for premature infants who lost their struggle for life. A thread of love ties the wedding dresses and burial gowns together.
The Angel Gowns Program is just one arm of the bereavement services provided by NICU Helping Hands, an organization based in Fort Worth, Texas. This non-profit organization is a hospital-based program that expands the support services and level of education provided to parents and other family members affected by the hospitalization of a newborn in the NICU.
These support components include parent support and education, sibling support, hospital to home preparation, memory archiving, antepartum support, transport support, and bereavement.
Joy’s daughter Lisa and son-in-law Randy Grubbs, a neonatologist in Ft. Worth, founded NICU Helping Hands in 2010. About a year later the organization started Project NICU, a family support program available to area hospitals. The program includes one-on-one support through mentoring and other programs to help with the educational and emotional needs of the families of premature infants.
In April 2013 Angel Gowns was launched, and women began donating wedding dresses.
Joy got involved with the Angel Gowns project about a year ago, when Lisa called to ask her for help sewing the gowns — and, specifically, to start with the wedding gown in which Lisa was married.
“I couldn’t cut up her gown,” said Joy apologetically, but it wasn’t long before Lisa shipped three gowns to her mom, along with the patterns for several tiny gowns. Even though initially it wasn’t her daughter’s wedding gown, for Joy it was an emotional process to cut up the gowns. She thought about the process of a young girl getting married, about the love, hope and expectation of family, and then the contrasting sorrow of losing a baby.
Joy says she believes in the power of prayer and how the love of God can be communicated through tangible things – “I’ll never know the baby, mother or dad, but I hope they know some sense of love and caring that went into the gown,” she said, looking over some of the 60 gowns recently made and ready to be shipped to NICU Helping Hands. “My prayer is that none of these ever have to be used.”
A number of other local women have also become involved in the project. Linda Pearson donated the serger that Joy needed to finish the seams. Erica Stuart donated her wedding gown, and Renai Johnson is also one of the seamstresses. Others have donated gowns and laces and ribbons.
Erica contacted Joy through a mutual friend and donated her beautiful wedding dress for the project. Joy has completed many precious, tiny gowns from Erica’s gown.
Angel Gowns ministry tugs at Erica’s heart, too, since 16 years ago she went through a difficult time when she gave birth to twin baby girls. During the birth, one of her babies had the cord wrapped around her neck. She was rushed to Vanderbilt’s NICU where the baby stayed for six weeks, followed by years of follow-up therapy. She made many trips from Fayetteville to Nashville. At that time, she also had a 17-year-old son to care for, and there was not an organization like NICU Helping Hands to assist.
NICU Helping Hands not only serves the Forth Worth area but also families all across the nation that are looking for education, support and a helping hand during their difficult journey.
NICU Helping Hands is preparing for its annual fundraiser, Burgers 4 Babies, to be held in April in Fort Worth. Funds help support the organization. Those who wish to donate to the program may give online at their website www.nicuhelpinghands.org or call (817) 584-1437.
Other ways to help the Angel Gowns project are by donating gowns, ribbon or lace for trim. Simply contact Joy Rodriguez by email at joyr@fpunet.
Lisa says additional seamstresses are needed for the Angel Gown project. Dresses and patterns are provided for the seamstresses, and a portion of burial gowns made may be donated to a designated hospital.
It is the hope of all involved in this ministry to show through these tiny gowns a love that is felt deep in our hearts for each grieving family in the loss of their precious child.