'Angel gowns' for grieving parents who lost their child young

Angel Gowns Singapore makes outfits for premature babies, stillborns or infants who have died

When Mrs Rosalind Tong's premature baby girl died in 2011, she and her husband had the heartbreaking task of finding an outfit to cremate her in.

The hospital had wrapped their daughter in a white cloth and placed her in a plain cardboard box, Mrs Tong, 41, says.

The clothes she had bought for her daughter were too large. "But something had to be done," says the housewife, who has a son in Primary 1.

She ended up buying a dress for her daughter from Mothercare at VivoCity. It was still too big, so she had to fold it around her baby.

Mrs Tong, whose 44-year-old husband is in business development, said it took two years before she could step into that store again.

A few months after the death of her child, she Googled for ways to create a keepsake of her daughter and chanced upon Angel Gowns in the United States.

People might feel the gowns are a sad thing, but I think it will bring some relief for the grieving parents.

VOLUNTEER SEAMSTRESS KRISTY ONG on the Angel Gowns. She finds the sewing process cathartic - she lost her 21-year-old daughter to a rare cancer two months ago

The organisation provides parents with burial outfits for their premature babies, stillborns or infants who have died.

The group was started in 2013 by Ms Lisa Grubbs, wife of a specialist for premature babies and founder of the Neonatal Intensive-Care Unit Helping Hands organisation. She collects wedding gowns and gets seamstresses to turn them into tiny outfits.

Mrs Tong wanted to start a similar group here, but had limited time and skills. She was working as a marketing executive then and could not sew.

Her plans lay dormant until earlier this year, when she joined a hobby Facebook group, The Sewing Network (Singapore), to learn to sew.

By chance, another person on the group posted an article on Angel Gowns, which got her fired up again.

In June, she left her job, which freed up her time to set her plans in action.

At the same time, Ms Andrea Toh, 42, a mother of four girls, also saw the Angel Gowns post on The Sewing Network (Singapore) and was keen to get something started. She put out a notice on the sewing group's page, asking who was interested to meet and get to work.

Ms Toh, who runs a software business from home, says: "I've never had a miscarriage or experienced infant loss, but know others who have had stillbirths. It was traumatic for them. If something like this could make a difference, why not?"

In August, seven women, including Mrs Tong and Ms Toh, started Angel Gowns Singapore.

They had different skills and took on various roles from managing social media to deconstructing gowns. The group includes married women with no children and mothers who have experienced loss or know other parents who did.

They accept bridesmaids' outfits, evening gowns, children's baptism dresses and even men's suits, which can be used to make vests for boys.

Wedding gowns might seem like an unusual choice of raw material for a baby's outfit, but Ms Toh says: "The gowns were used for happy occasions. When you link that love and happiness of the person who wore it, we hope it brings an element of love and comfort to a sad event."

Calls also went out on social media and donations poured in, with the group receiving about 50 dresses so far. One of the first Angel Gowns founders, Ms June Lee, 31, who is a mother to a six-month-old boy, gave her $8,000 Vera Wang gown.

About 50 volunteers, from experienced to amateur seamstresses, have also come forward.

Regional tax director Juliana Lim, 39, gave away her $6,000 custom- made wedding dress.

She read about Angel Gowns Singapore from a post on a recycling Facebook group.

Ms Lim, who got married in 2003, adds: "I don't think I'm going to have a child, so I won't be passing on my gown to my daughter.

"For such a good cause, I didn't think about how much I spent. The alternative is just keeping it in the cupboard. There's no point hanging onto something for a memory."

Housewife Ginny Png, 36, whose daughter died of heart failure 10 weeks after birth, donated her gown in her memory.

She says: "A wedding gown is such a big part of a very important time in your life and has lots of sentimental value. To send it off to become something else that will impact others means a lot to me."

She recently gave birth to another girl and also has a three-year- old son.

Angel Gowns Singapore meets every third Wednesday of the month from the morning till the evening at Mrs Tong's flat in Sembawang.

In stations, the volunteer seamstresses deconstruct the gowns, cut the cloth using a template and repurpose it into smaller gowns.

Some seamstresses work from home and the deconstructed outfits are couriered to them.

There are four sizes - Micro Preemie, small, medium and large. There is also a wrap available for premature babies under 20 weeks old.

Volunteer Kristy Ong, 53, finds the sewing process cathartic. She lost her 21-year-old daughter to a rare cancer two months ago.

She spent 10 hours hand-sewing her first Angel Gown. To date, she has made about 17 such gowns.

Ms Ong, who was a pre-school principal but left her job to take care of her daughter, says: "I'm grieving badly, so I want to find something to keep myself busy.

"People might feel the gowns are a sad thing, but I think it will bring some relief for the grieving parents."

Once the gowns are completed, Ms Toh handwashes and irons them, sews on a small metal angel-shaped charm and packs each gown into a cellophane bag. She also puts in a card with the same charm.

She then delivers the gowns to the hospital. KK Women's and Children's Hospital has received 29 outfits, while 12 have been sent to Mount Alvernia Hospital.

Ms Karen Poon, director of mission at Mount Alvernia Hospital, says: "We were impressed by the intricate work and thoughtfulness of making these gowns.

"We want to present these Angel Gowns to the parents to consider as we know they want a beautiful send-off. This not only respects the dignity of life, no matter how brief, but it is also a way of passing on love."

Even though Angel Gowns Singapore has just gotten off the ground, its founders hope to keep it financially sustainable.

For now, they depend on cash and in-kind donations. Volunteers sometimes pay for supplies out of their pocket.

They will also need another space to work out of, as Mrs Tong intends to go back to work in the new year.

She says: "As much as we hope the gowns won't be used, they will be. We want to get a constant supply going. We hope the gowns will provide some relief to parents in grief."

Learn more about how the women got together to make "angel gowns". Go to str.sg/4fbP


HOW YOU CAN HELP

1. DONATE OUTFITS

You can donate wedding gowns, bridesmaids' dresses, baptism dresses, formal dinner gowns or white tea ceremony dresses.

Other items the group will take include lace, white bias tapes, pearl buttons and white ribbons.

There are five areas in Singapore to drop off your outfits: Tampines Avenue 8, Sembawang, Anchorvale Link, and Bedok and Choa Chu Kang MRT stations.

Outfits will not be picked up personally nor will the group bear courier charges.

E-mail angelgowns.sg@gmail.com or send the group a private message on its Facebook page, Angel Gowns Singapore.

You can arrange an appointment with the volunteers to drop off your gown and get the exact addresses.

You can also mail your outfit to Angel Gowns Singapore, My Mail Box 883823, Singapore 919191.


2. DONATE MONEY

The money will be used to pay for courier charges for packages sent to volunteer seamstresses who can sew only from home; buying supplies such as thread, buttons and ribbons; packaging for the finished Angel Gowns and charms; and printing costs for cards and bag toppers.

E-mail angelgowns.sg@ gmail.com with your name, telephone number, the date you will make the transfer and how much you are donating.

The group will send details of the bank account you can make your donation to.


3. BE A VOLUNTEER

The group meets every third Wednesday of the month.

You do not need sewing experience to help.

E-mail angelgowns.sg@gmail.com for more information.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 23, 2016, with the headline 'A gown for baby's last rites'. Print Edition | Subscribe