Shortly before Ben and Jennifer Jones were expecting their third child in 2014, a friend of theirs unexpectedly went into labor with her daughter at 23 weeks. The baby lived for 15 months in the NICU before passing away. One of the things Jennifer noticed during her friend’s immense grief was the struggle to find something her baby could wear for burial.
Then, the Joneses had their daughter, and while still in the hospital, Jennifer asked a nurse what they do for babies who pass away before coming home. Did they have a protocol for garments?
“She said they wrap them in a washrag," Jennifer says. “It was heartbreaking. I had just had a baby, and I couldn’t imagine her passing away and being wrapped in a washrag. There’s no dignity in that.”
Amidst the euphoria of bringing home a healthy baby girl, the Joneses were thinking about how to help parents who lose their babies and need a garment for a dignified burial. Jennifer contacted the nurses at LeConte Medical Center, where she’d just given birth, to propose a solution.
“They were gung-ho from the beginning,” Jennifer says. “We were home, and I was nursing, and I couldn’t sew right away, so my husband sewed the first gown. His mother was a seamstress—a single mom of four boys who sewed disposable clothes for doctors—so he has a sewing background. I’d donated my wedding dress to an organization similar to ours in a different state the year before, so we used a friend’s gown for the first memory gown.”
Word spread quickly, and soon the Joneses were getting phone calls from UT Medical and Children’s Hospital. They recruited volunteers and rented a room at the Sevierville Library to brainstorm, take apart donated wedding dresses and disperse the work. Angel Wings was established but still in need of a full-time workspace. After a quick stint in a donated office space in Gatlinburg, the organization raised enough money to purchase a church building in 2016. In fact, the day of their move-in was the same day the Smoky Mountain fires started.
“We were moving into that space on the day of the fire,” Jennifer recalls. “We had been looking at four properties, and this was the only one that didn’t burn. The other three burned down.”
Today, Angel Wings Memory Gowns provides garments to more than 50 hospitals and funeral homes across the U.S. in addition to serving Knox, Sevier and Blount Counties. They provide gowns and wraps at no expense to the hospital or the parents; even the shipping expenses are covered. The organization is entirely run by volunteers, so there is always a revolving need for people to sew, take apart dresses or contribute in other ways that keep Angel Wings running—whether it be donating wedding dresses or purchasing items from their updated Amazon.com wishlist.
“Our volunteer base is not where it needs to be. There’s only four of us who are sewing. Others take dresses apart, and there’s also bracelet-making, where we use the beads from dresses to make Mom a keepsake,” Jennifer says.
In fact, Angel Wings provides much more than gowns. Every bereaved mother receives a kit in a drawstring bag that includes the baby's gown or wrap, a crocheted hat, a stuffed animal, a bracelet and a “stay with me” blanket, a two-piece receiving blanket in which the mother and baby each keep a half. Also included in the kit are grief support materials.
“Our priority is not us. It’s hard, and we do need volunteers, but knowing the babies will have dignity when they are laid to rest is what keeps us going,” Jennifer says. “We keep perfecting what we do.”
Currently underway are preparations for their fourth-annual “On the Wings of Angels” gala on Friday, Sept. 27, at their main location at 560 King Branch Road in Sevierville. As their biggest fundraiser of the year, it’s imperative that the plated-dinner evening, complete with entertainment, goes well. Tickets are $50 each if purchased by Sept. 10 and $75 from Sept. 11 to the day of the event.
Comedian Laura West from LOL Ministries is slated to perform.