BRIGHT SIDE: Keepsakes for lost babies

MADE FOR ANGELS: Catherine Rowley, Fiona Kirk, Katrina Sheraton-Yu, Sarah Ciantar-Goold, Kym Cross and Christine McKenna at the Volunteer Deconstruction Day.
MADE FOR ANGELS: Catherine Rowley, Fiona Kirk, Katrina Sheraton-Yu, Sarah Ciantar-Goold, Kym Cross and Christine McKenna at the Volunteer Deconstruction Day.

SIMON WALKER: Bright Side archive

IT’S  a sad reality that many babies die tragically young or are stillborn, leaving their  parents devastated with little opportunity to grieve properly. 

In an effort to alleviate some of the pain, Wyong resident Catherine Rowley, in her role as the   Central Coast/Hunter area manager  of NICU Helping Hands  Angel Gown Program  Australia, is  urging people to donate their wedding dresses, if they’re no longer of any use, so that they can be lovingly handcrafted into little gowns for babies that never make it home.

 NICU Helping Hands is an American organisation and was  founded in Australia by Fiona Kirk of Canberra.  

‘‘The Angel Gown Program gives parents a chance to have photos taken in something made with love – satin or silk–  which they can’t otherwise get,’’ Catherine explained. ‘‘It helps provide a sense of closure and begins the healing process.

‘‘Angel Gowns Australia recently affiliated with  NICU Helping Hands, which means we now have the  support of a world-renowned organisation as well as the ability to move forward with our work, including fund-raising, events and working with other organisations.’’

Catherine became aware of Angel Gowns Australia after her friend, Kellie Grainger, the godmother of her son, lost her twins.

 ‘‘I have lost four children in fact,’’ Kellie said. ‘‘Catherine was my support person for the first two and when I lost the twins she was moved to track down Angel Gowns Australia, which is based in Canberra, and get them to make me some gowns. When a child is born normally, you get clothes and flowers and all that sort of stuff. When you get a premmie, people don’t know what to do for you. I found it was really sweet just to get some memories. It was very nice and I liked it. It made me feel like I had more support out there.’’

Kellie kept both gowns after having her twins cremated and now has them framed in a cabinet. Quite often hospitals have their own processes designed to help grieving families, with the parents sometimes getting a memento, a footprint, a handprint, a lock of hair.

Organisations such as Miracle Babies Foundation provide assistance for those in need.  

‘‘We provide neonatal intensive care units [NICUs] such as that at the John Hunter Children’s Hospital with specialised clothing and memory boxes,’’ Miracle Babies co-founder Naomi Rohr said. ‘‘Grieving families are offered a keepsake box with matching blanket, pillow and knitted teddy bears. It’s important to have a range of options for families to choose from.’’ 

Heartfelt volunteer photographers provide photographic memories to families free of charge.

The team at NICU Helping Hands  Angel Gown Program  Australia hope to complement these existing services by using wedding gowns that are otherwise doing nothing.

The early response to Facebook postings has been extremely positive. 

Caroline Hooper, from Rutherford, agreed to donate her gown after seeing a post.

‘‘I just thought it was a really great cause,’’ Caroline said. ‘‘My husband had a brother who was stillborn. I decided to donate my wedding dress and Catherine offered to organise for two keepsakes to be made. 

‘‘Thirty years ago the subject was taboo and his mother has no memories or keepsakes. I think it’s a beautiful thing that they do. It’s unfortunate, that they have to do it,  it’s just such a heartbreaking time.’’

After a successful Volunteer Deconstruction Day in Sydney, the NSW branch of NICU Helping Hands  Angel Gown Program  Australia has more than 50volunteers in NSW, more than 80 around Australia and in excess of 400 gowns ready to be transformed.

As a result of Catherine’s actions, there are 15 volunteers in the Central Coast/Newcastle Region and more than 50 gowns.

 ‘‘From one wedding gown, we can make about 10 angel gowns,’’ Catherine said. ‘‘We aim to make up presentation gift boxes, which we will make available to hospitals at no charge.”

‘‘I know there are organisations already doing great work in this area and I don’t want to step on toes’’ Catherine said. ‘‘I just want us all to work together for the same cause in the end.’’

 ‘‘A family open day will be held at Minmi Community Hall on Saturday July 5  from 10am. We welcome everyone to the event, where you can see what we do and become involved.’’