Making gowns for little angels
Sherie Vukelic and her mother in-law Donna Koop work on turning donated wedding dresses into burial gowns for grieving parents. (DAVE THOMAS/Toronto Sun)
Michele Mandel, Toronto Sun
, Last Updated: 10:03 PM ET
TORONTO - TORONTO - Sherie Vukelic was just 22 weeks along in her first pregnancy when she went into premature labour and rushed to the hospital. She and her boyfriend John Sheldrake were pregnant with twins and were so excited that they’d already bought two of everything - two cribs, two strollers, two sets of every kind of outfit. “I had so many hopes and dreams for them,” Vukelic recalls four years later. Liam was born 1 lb. 1 oz. and lived just one hour and 16 minutes. “He died on my chest,” she says softly. Her contractions stopped as suddenly as they began and doctors hoped they could save Liam’s twin. But within a week, a serious infection had set in that threatened his life as well as his mom’s and so he had to be delivered as well. Nathan was born weighing 1 lb. 7 oz. “I insisted the doctors save him. I could not lose two babies.” But there was nothing they could do; rushed to Women’s College hospital’s neo-natal intensive care unit, he died two days later, the day following her birthday. That period is a blur of pain for them both. “I was so distraught, everything happened so fast,” says Vukelic, 28. “My body didn’t want them and I didn’t know why. I did everything I was supposed to do and to this day, I don’t know why. It was so scary and so confusing and so emotional.” They would go on to have Brandon, an adorable three-year-old now running around their Brampton apartment, playing with his toy cars. But his brothers are not forgotten. Vukelic has always wanted to do something to honour their memory and stumbled on an idea when it appeared on her Facebook feed: a Texas woman was turning donated wedding dresses into beautiful burial gowns for infants who never make it home from the hospital. In her own case, her twins had been wrapped in hospital blankets so big, she could barely see their faces. “It was something I would have liked to have when I lost my children,” Vukelic says. “It was like a little light bulb went off. This is how I’m going to give back. The last thing a grieving mother wants to do is go to a store to find doll clothes to bury their baby.” She discovered there was no such project in Ontario and the GTA hospitals she contacted were excited about her idea. “I was telling one woman at Brampton Civic and she started to cry.” So last month, the young stay-at-home mom launched Forever Loved Angel Gowns. After spreading the word on mommy message boards, she’s already been inundated with 40 used wedding dresses: including an $8,000 designer gown and a dress shipped from Quebec. One tiny problem: Vukelic had never sewn before. No matter - her parents bought her a sewing machine and she took a week-long course. Now with the help of her mother-in-law Donna Kopp and another volunteer, she’s in full production on her dining room table. It takes up to five hours to carefully dismantle the panels, bodice, zippers, buttons, beading and lace that make up a bride’s dress. From each one, they can make more than a dozen, white baby gowns, all appliqued with the beads and ribbon they had meticulously removed from the original dress. Especially heartbreaking for Vukelic was completing her first one - a small silk wrap for a micropreemie weighing less than a pound. “I cried, it was so emotional,” she says. “It reminded me how little Liam was.” Sheldrake, 32, couldn’t be more proud - and has even been drafted to make the bows. “It’s a beautiful thing that she is doing for our sons’ memory,” he says. By sewing every night after she puts Brandon to bed, Vukelic - along with her two volunteers - have already completed about 60 of the outfits that are being packaged and delivered to the neonatal units next week. Her dream is to have these burial gowns available to parents in NICUs throughout the province - but she’s desperately short of volunteer seamstresses who can help honour these tiny babies. “They’re just little humans who didn’t get their chance at life,” she explains. “I just want to let their parents know that someone cares.” You can reach Vukelic through facebook.com/AngelGownsOntario.