A Gown to Clothe Our Heart 6

The Emma & Evan Foundation gives hope to our community

In 2011, my wife and I endured the unthinkable. She was 18 weeks pregnant with our first child and an ultrasound came back with some curious results. Within 36 hours we found out that our unborn baby was not well, and the prognosis was bleak. The following 18 weeks were filled with doctors we didn’t know existed, tests we had never imagined, and finally a baby being born and immediately put on life support. After 26 days of life in the neonatal intensive care unit, her life support was removed.

Then came an entirely different set of events: the gut-wrenching planning of a funeral for a six-pound baby. It was by the grace of God that we found people who could walk us through some of the choices we had to make, one of which was finding a burial gown. She was too small for baby clothes, and they just don’t make doll clothes big enough.

Sherri Howe, a Montana native and Missoula local since 1989, had walked back and forth past her wedding dress for six years as it hung in her garage. In 2015, she began looking for a way to donate her dress to bless someone and came across a Facebook page that explained how women were donating their dresses to be repurposed as burial gowns for infants. Her mother and grandmother were excellent seamstresses, and she had a sewing machine, so she took her seam ripper out and got to work, much to the horror of her oldest daughter.

This wasn’t an aimless venture or a spur of the moment decision. This opportunity was something her heart needed. Sherri has two close friends who had buried stillborn children, and after searching a little more, she realized that Montana is one of only a handful of states that isn’t currently serviced by the Angel Gown Program. Thus began the Emma and Evan Foundation, Montana’s first wedding dress repurposing program.

Fifty women donated dresses in the first year of its existence. In just the last year, another 314 dresses have come in. On average, 10 gowns can be made from a single dress, but some of the volunteer seamstresses have created as many as 30 from a single dress. Each gown takes about four hours to craft.

The foundation quickly found themselves with too many wedding dresses and not enough seamstresses, so they partnered with Amazing Grace Wedding Dress Rentals. While each dress waits around 18 months to be transformed into multiple gowns, it’s available for rental to budget-minded brides. Each rental brings important revenue back to the foundation, and this program has been fundamental to its financial sustainability.

“[Families] without access to Angel Gowns clothe their stillborn infants in t-shirts or wrap them in a blanket. It is my opinion that these precious little souls deserve much better than that,” said Sherri. “This child will not experience baptism, communion, prom, or a wedding. Therefore, this child should be adorned with a beautiful garment to help celebrate these events that this child will not experience. It’s important to the family to bury their child in something beautiful. To a grieving family, knowing that someone (our seamstresses) cared enough to create something special for them brings comfort.”

The healing potential for this program is much larger than the families who receive a beautiful handmade baby gown in the middle of their grief.

“Ladies who have been through unspeakable abuse have donated their dresses in hope to pay beauty forward—to heal from the ugliness of their past,” said Sherri. “And several of our seamstresses and volunteers have found a purpose in their lives and love being able to help others through this organization. I, myself, have found purpose, not only in running the organization but in leading my volunteers and in forming relationships with dress donors.”

My wife and I were lucky. The day before our daughter’s funeral my wife found one white dress hanging alone on a rack at a department store, and it nearly fit our daughter, but it sure would have been a relief to have someone there to point us to an organization like the one Sherri started—to land in the arms of an angel here on earth.