Sometimes, lightning strikes and turns a humble Facebook post into something that inspires thousands of people.
Over the last few days it happened to Justi Underwood Bates, a wife and mother who lives in Oak Grove, Ky.
Last week she posted a photo to her Facebook page of a gown — snowy white and satiny, with a lacy bodice and short sleeves.
It was tiny. Baby-sized.
She wrote: “Today I received my wedding gown back. I sent it off earlier this year to be made into angel gowns for babies that don’t make it home from the hospital and I’ll be donating them to the NICU at Vanderbilt.
“Seventeen little gowns were made from my dress and as beautiful as they are I pray they are never needed.”
Bates told London’s Daily Mail that she decided to give her gown new life after it spent years hanging in the back of a closet.
“It meant too much to me to just let it hang there and be forgotten about for the next few decades so I sent it off to be made into angel gowns and to have a purpose,” she said.
Bates’ post has introduced scores of women to a growing trend of transforming wedding gowns into garments for babies who have died too young.
Across the country volunteer seamstresses working by themselves or with others through nonprofit groups are breathing new life into used bridal gowns.
A program called Forever Loved Angel Gowns in Ontario has so many brides wanting to donate their gowns that the group has stopped taking contributions for a while.
One wedding dress can yield from a dozen to 20 baby-sized outfits, or “angel gowns” as they’re typically called.
The Angel Gown Program at Shawnee Mission Medical Center in Merriam serves families whose babies die in the hospital. The sizes range from the teeniest preemies to full-term infants.
“It is very difficult to shop for a baby burial garment when a family experiences infant loss,” the hospital’s perinatal bereavement coordinator, Tricia Walania, says on the program’s website.
“For premature or pre-term babies, it is often difficult to find something small enough. Often clothing is too big or other times, inappropriate for a time of grief.”
In Bates’ home state of Kentucky, Mary Fogle and two other women started a ministry called God’s Littlest Angels to make gowns for babies at hospitals across the state. They make the gowns to be worn or kept in keepsake boxes for the parents.
“This is just so special to me, and every gown I make, there’s a part of me that’s in that gown,” Fogle told WHAS in Louisville.
In Colorado, a group of volunteer women are transforming wedding dresses into tiny burial gowns, bonnets and buntings for hospitals, clinics and midwives in the Denver area.
The Front Range Angel Gowns volunteers make tiny white suits with pants, too, for baby boys. Some of the women making the garments have lost babies or family members of their own.
Janet Scheller in Hamel, Ill., started her nonprofit, Allison’s Angel Gowns, in 2014 after she lost her daughter, Allison, who died when she was just 1 day old. One of her most difficult struggles was finding something to dress her baby in for the funeral. Today Allison’s Angel Gowns are given, for free, to families served by hospitals in the St. Louis area.
The trend can be traced to Fort Worth, where a nonprofit support group for families with premature babies called NICU Helping Hands began a program in 2013 to transform bridal gowns into “angel” gowns for infants to wear for their final photos or burial.
The group’s founder, Lisa Grubbs, told the Today show that it broke her heart to see families who had lost a baby at the hospital picking through donated clothing to find something for their baby to wear in its final moments.
“It struck me as incredibly wrong that that was what they were having to do at one of the darkest hours of their lives,” said Grubbs, who donated her own wedding gown to kick off the angel gowns effort.
“These babies are not getting a hand-me-down or something donated,” she told Today. “It’s a unique, one-of-a-kind piece of clothing.
“We’re talking about the last time that they hold their baby and what they’re giving their baby. It’s those last personal acts as a parent, those last things you do for your child.”
Bates’ Facebook post from Aug. 6 has been shared more than 185,000 times, eliciting comments ranging from “this is the sweetest thing ever” to “could you pm how to do this, please.”
“I’m so thankful it has (gone viral) because now the word is out that a wedding dress can do more than take up closet space,” she told the Daily Mail. “It can be a small help for family in a tragic situation.”