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Angel dresses help with healing

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Oxbow's Becky Panter holds one of the angel dresses that have been created through the Saskatchewan Angel Dresses program. The dresses, which are made from wedding dresses and other women's formal attire, are distributed to parents grieving the loss of an unborn child or infant.

A request for used dresses and a seamstress less than three months ago by Oxbow resident Becky Panter has ignited a province-wide movement that has touched the lives of hundreds of people.

And it has helped Panter cope with a devastating loss.

Early this year, Panter found out she was pregnant with her fourth child – a son who would have been named Christopher. Less than a week later, though, she lost the baby after suffering a miscarriage.

Prior to the miscarriage, Panter had previously heard of a program at a Texas neonatal intensive care unit called Helping Hands' Angel Gowns. Women would send in their wedding dresses and other formal attire, and the dresses would be transformed into garments to wrap babies who had died.

She thought it was a great idea, but sending a wedding dress to Texas would be difficult.

After her own miscarriage, Panter decided to create a local version of the Helping Hands program, which allowed her to do something with her wedding dress. Panter went on the Garage Sale Estevan Facebook page to find a seamstress who could help out. Two people stepped forward to alter her dress.

And through her request, she received about 20 gowns that could be transformed into what she called "angel dresses" – tiny dresses that can wrap around a baby.

The first batch of angel dresses was sent to Regina General Hospital and Saskatoon's Royal University Hospital.

“Then my cousin got wind of a lady giving her dress away in Saskatoon, and it blossomed from there,” said Panter. “In more ways than one.”

Panter has become the instigator for Saskatchewan Angel Dresses. In the last three months, dress collectors and seamstresses from across the province have stepped forward.

“The collectors collect the dresses … take pictures and then unsew the dresses to get them ready for the seamstresses,” said Panter. “And then they hand them off to the seamstress.”

She never thought it would grow so quickly. There are about 200 collectors in the province. Each Saskatchewan city has at least one collector, and many towns have someone accepting the dresses, too. Regina, for example, has five or six collectors. Estevan has two. Bienfait has one.

Panter, of course, is the collector for Oxbow. She estimates that she has dropped off at least 50 wedding dresses at her seamstresses in about three months, and she has taken apart at least a dozen more. Those disassembled dresses are waiting to go to the seamstresses.

At least 100 seamstresses are involved with the project.

“They're just hobby seamstresses who enjoy sewing,” she said.

Around 300 angel dresses have been distributed thus far. They are typically very small; some have a simple design. But the volunteers who bring them together create something that is beautiful, Pander said.

One seamstress was able to convert a wedding dress into 22 angel dresses, she said. A large, flowing dress can generate yards and yards of fabric.

Panter's mother is among volunteers assisting with the project. She isn't an expert sewer, but she has been volunteering to assist Saskatchewan Angel Dresses.

The angel dresses have been dropped off at hospitals in Regina, Saskatoon and Prince Albert. St. Joseph's Hospital in Estevan will become a drop-off site in late June or early July. Moose Jaw, Swift Current and Yorkton will soon accept the dresses as well.

The hospital will hand the dress over to the grieving baby's grieving family.

“When it looks like a baby is going to be passing away, or they get the news that there's no heartbeat, the hospital goes and gives the parents the choice of dresses, and then the parents have something to put the baby in when it passes, or for the funeral,” said Panter.

The dresses are free of charge.

Most of the donated dresses have been from weddings, but Painter said she has also received grad dresses, bridesmaid gowns and even a beautiful red East Indian sari gown. Pander's Christopher was wrapped in a colourful doll blanket.

“People have their wedding dresses sitting around, and what else are you going to do with your wedding dress?” she asked.

A lot of people who have had an angel baby have told Pander that they wished the Angel Dresses program was around when they went through the trauma of losing their baby.

“I have already received thank yous from parents who have lost their babies who have received angel dresses,” said Panter.

Hospitals, collectors and seamstresses have also provided great feedback.

Panter said many people in Saskatchewan have angel babies. She has heard that 50 per cent of pregnancies end in a loss, and everyone seems to know of somebody who has lost an infant – a mother, a sister, an extended family member or a friend.

“Everybody wants to give a dress to help a mom go through their loss,” said Panter.

Saskatchewan Angel Dresses has received enough donations of materials that they can supply dresses to funeral homes. Panter is hopeful that any family that loses a baby in Saskatchewan can receive an angel dress.

All of this has helped Panter cope with her loss earlier this year. It has given her a means to channel her emotions. And she has realized that everything does happen for a reason, even though it can be difficult to grasp that reason during trying times.

“Christopher's reason was to inspire those in Saskatchewan so that parents don't have to go down the doll aisle to find a dress for their baby,” said Panter.

The angel dress program has spread elsewhere, too. While she was starting it in Saskatchewan, it was taking off in Alberta. B.C., Manitoba and Ontario also have their own angel dress efforts. The movement has spread to as far away as Australia.

Panter has set up a Facebook page for the Saskatchewan Angel Dress project that has more than 2,000 members. It has a list of the different people associated with the project, and photos of the angel dresses.

She is always looking for more people to collect gowns, take them apart and turn them into something that can be given to grieving families.

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