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Satin and lace: Seamstress takes on 'angel gowns' project to help others
Jennifer Scace works to cut the pattern out of the bottom portion of a wedding dress while working on a new "angel gown" for stillborns or babies who die in the hospital. The handmade infant-sized burial gowns are part of the NICU Helping Hands' Angel Gown program and created using donated wedding dresses. (Times photo: Anthony Wahl)
MONROE - Jennifer Scace repurposes wedding gowns, but not for brides. The wearers of her donated "angel gowns" are babies who don't live past their first hospital visit.

She volunteers for the NICU Helping Hands' Angel Gown program, where seamstresses use donated wedding dresses to make infant-sized burial gowns.

Scace originally became drawn to this issue in 2013. On June 19 of last year, her friend Nicole Josephs went to the hospital in labor only to find out her baby Amelia Anne didn't have a heartbeat.

"After Nicole lost her baby, I had, I guess, the guts to talk to her and say, "hey, do you want to share what happened to Amelia,' and then she really opened up," Scace said. "She says that I'm her rock at times, because other friends are afraid to talk about the baby and just kind of "hey, how're you doing? How are the other kids?' and don't talk about her, where I'm totally comfortable talking about her."

At least once a month, Scace visits Amelia's gravesite, sometimes accompanied by her own kids who read stories to Amelia, she said.

She heard about angel gowns on Facebook, found the program and got accepted as a volunteer seamstress. After that, she put out a couple requests for dress donations and had "an overwhelming amount of people" offer her their wedding dresses - so many that she didn't have enough space to accept all of them, but will once she uses up her current three.

In her spare time, Scace - often joined by her mother - sews the gowns to send to NICU's headquarters in Fort Worth, Texas, where they are quality inspected, packaged and distributed to participating hospitals or families in need.

While the program doesn't have a local chapter, they send the dresses for free to any hospital that requests them, according to NICU Helping Hands Presidents Lisa Grubbs. Families can choose from the gowns available at the hospital or request one through the program's website, all for free.

Grubbs said there are 15 volunteer seamstresses from Wisconsin who are registered under the NICU program, and three parties from Wisconsin applying to run local chapters.

NICU makes sure the sewing is "basically perfect," Scace said. The program also has certain requirements, including no seams to be showing, and the gowns must be made from wedding dresses or pale-colored bridesmaid dresses, according to the website.

Scace uses three basic sizes when making the gowns, ranging from full-term to "micro preemie." The program also makes wraps for babies who are too small and fragile to fit clothing onto, she said.

"I choose to line all of the gowns with lining from wedding gowns," Scace said. "It's softer fabric that isn't going to damage their skin."

Josephs didn't get a dress through NICU, but she did use a donated dress of a similar style.

"She said it was awesome that she was able to get a donation of a gown because they went to the hospital thinking they were going to bring home a baby and when they got there, obviously they found out while she was in labor that the baby wasn't going to be coming home," Scace said. "So she didn't bring anything like a burial gown with her - she brought clothes you're going to bring a baby home in."

"She said it was great because she wasn't in any mindset to go Internet shopping or have her mom go and find a gown for the baby, so I think she really appreciated it," Scace said.

Her mother, Lynn Zimmerman, sat at the table working on a gown while Scace talked. The sound of Zimmerman's sewing machine hummed in the background.

"I just come over and help her," Zimmerman said, calling it their mother-daughter "sit and sew time."

"I think it means a lot to have my mom helping because it's a bond between mother and child, and same thing, like this is supposed to ... help the bond between the mother and child," Scace said, referring to the angel gowns.

NICU Helping Hands is a four-year-old nonprofit organization created to offer support to parents dealing with a premature birth. The angel gown program is part of NICU's bereavement services and was created a year ago, though it just started receiving national attention in March, Grubb said.

They have thousands of angel gowns available at their Texas headquarters, which they package in white boxes with tissue paper and information on their other services when requests come in.

"We have not had any orders we couldn't fill," Grubb said.

She said they recently sent out over 2,600 wedding gowns to over 500 seamstresses across the country. With anywhere from one to two dozen angel gowns coming from each dress, Grubb expects to get another 31,000 to 62,000 angel gowns.

Those wanting to become involved with the angel gown program can volunteer or donate dresses or money to help cover shipping costs to get the gowns to hospitals, according to Scace. For more information, visit their website at

"If anyone local ever needed one, I would be more than happy to make one for someone, too, if they had a loss," Scace said.