In Janelle Reuter’s apartment in Johnstown, a white satin wedding gown with big puffy sleeves hangs above her sewing table. If you are old enough, you might recognize such a dress. In the 1980s, many brides, young and in love, wore romantic, Victorian-inspired dresses. Remember Princess Diana’s gown with the balloon-like sleeves?
In the Capital Region, this vintage gown and hundreds of other wedding dresses of all ages and styles are bound for another mission of love. At the sewing table in her dining room, Reuter will sacrifice the 1980s gown, cutting the satin and stripping its delicate lace, to give it new life. Reuter is one of more than a dozen volunteers who create Angel Gowns, exquisitely crafted outfits that are donated to hospitals and gifted to parents whose babies are stillborn, miscarried or die as infants.
“It gives them their last moment of looking at the child in something beautiful,” says Reuter.
Since the group was launched in 2015 by Carol Ann Selkis of Albany, Angel Gowns-Capital Region NY has donated more than 1,600 baby gowns made from old wedding and prom dresses to 43 hospitals. In our region, seven hospitals receive the baby clothing: St. Peter’s Hospital, Bellevue Woman’s Center, St. Mary’s Hospital in Amsterdam, Nathan Littauer Hospital in Gloversville, Albany Medical Center, Saratoga Hospital and Glens Falls Hospital.
Kathie and James Lateano of Glenville received this gift more than six years ago, when they lost their boys, Michael and Gabriel.
Kathie was the mother of a four-year-old son, Donovan, and six months pregnant with twins when she suffered a rare complication called a spontaneous catastrophic uterine rupture.
“They rushed me in for an emergency C-section at Bellevue. At that time, they told my husband they didn’t know if they could save all three of us.”
The identical twin boys were delivered at Bellevue. Michael lived 19 minutes. Gabriel was flown by emergency helicopter to Albany Med but he couldn’t be saved. He passed away the next day. At both hospitals, Kathie and James were given Angel Gown outfits for their babies.
“To us, it was one gift that we could give our boys…something lovingly made and precious and just beautiful to put them in,” said Lateano, her voice catching with emotion. “We were given these gowns at a time when we were filled with sadness and anger and disbelief.”
Angel Gowns-Capital Region NY’s Facebook page is packed with photos of thank you notes and hundreds of photos of tiny gowns and bonnets decorated with lace, beads, appliques, sequins and ribbons. When a seamstress completes an outfit, a picture of her work is posted on Facebook or Pinterest.
While the basic gown is cut from the same patterns and sewn by machine, each is embellished with wedding gown accents that are selected by the seamstress and stitched on by hand.
Janet Becker, an Angel Gown maker from Broadalbin, likes to sew a tiny fabric rose onto her baby gowns.
“That’s kind of my signature. They are all different colors,” she says.
Becker, who works as a trophy engraver at Goldstock’s Sporting Goods in Scotia, sews the little gowns on weekends, and in less than two years, since she joined the group, she’s made 120 of them.
“Something just told me ‘you have to do this,’” she says. “I just feel like I can do something for somebody who is in a really terrible situation. I don’t know who they are but hopefully my little gown is going to make someone feel a little better.”
In Johnstown, Reuter signed up 2 1/2 years ago, after retiring as a mental health counselor at Fulton Friendship House.
She’s made 350 baby gowns. “I love doing it,” she says. “I’ve been fortunate in my life, I want to do something for someone else. I want to give back.”
Her most recent work is laid out next to her sewing machine: three finished outfits and an Angel Pocket, a lace-trimmed, 10-by-10 inch satin square that will serve as a gentle envelope for a child that weighs less than a pound.
She made two boys’ gowns, one with a sailor-style collar, the other with an attached navy blue vest. Lace from the hem of a bridal gown trims a girl’s gown and matching bonnet that Reuter cups in the palm of her hand.
“Each one comes with a heart that given to the parents. The heart is made of the same fabric,” she says.
Gowns are made for babies that weigh from one to 13 pounds. “They are always free to the families and offered to all,” says Selkis.
Selkis and a couple of friends launched the Capital Region group as part of a national Angel Gowns organization.
“I started by contacting local hospitals to see if they needed our gowns,” she says.
Through Facebook, word of mouth and church bulletins, the message went out, and Selkis’ home was soon filled with wedding gowns.
“When we started locally, no one knew about this group, and people were shocked that there was even a need.”
By connecting with family and friends in other places, the local group then expanded its gown-giving to hospitals in Long Island, Florida, South Carolina, Georgia, Rhode Island and New Hampshire.
In the Capital Region, volunteers deliver the baby gowns to hospitals. “My husband and a few other men have helped us since the beginning,” says Selkis.
Recently, the group decided to separate from the national organization and operate on its own. With 20 active seamstresses from Johnstown to Albany, plus a few out-of-towners, the group has made 1,615 sets of Angel Gowns in three years.
And the wedding gowns keep coming, from women of all ages.
“I have heard heart-breaking stories from older women who donate their dresses, who lost a baby many years ago,” Selkis says. “In that time, they were ‘not allowed’ to grieve. Now they can find some closure and healing.”
A couple of months ago, Kathie Lateano decided to donate her own wedding gown in remembrance of Michael and Gabriel.
“It’s another way for me to honor their lives,” she says.
Kathie Brown wore the strapless ivory dress on Oct. 29, 2005, when she married James Lateano at St. Mary’s
Church in Ballston Spa.
One day soon, her dress will become an Angel Gown for a grieving couple that she will never meet.
“I wanted to give that gift to another family,” Lateano says.
How you can help
Angel Gowns-Capital Region NY is accepting donations of satin wedding gowns or satin prom gowns in white, ivory, light pink, light blue and other light pastel colors.
The seamstresses always need white and ivory thread, white and ivory ¼-inch fabric ribbon and tiny white and ivory pearl buttons, Tide PODS, OxiClean laundry spray, Ziploc bags in one to two gallon sizes and blank note cards.
The group also accepts prepaid gift cards in small denominations to Jo-Ann Fabrics & Crafts, Walmart; and prepaid American Express, MasterCard or Visa cards to help with shipping costs.
Donations may be dropped off at Goldstock’s Sporting Goods in Scotia (ask for Janet); Latham Ford (ask for Tom) or Christ Our Light Catholic Church in Loudonville (Bonnie).
“And we can always use more seamstresses. Sewing has become a dying art,” says Carol Ann Selkis, the group’s founder and organizer.
For more information, see Angel Gowns-Capital Region NY on Facebook.