By Neil Strebig of Point Park News Service

When Rose Ann Milbert started repurposing wedding gowns into burial gowns for stillborn babies and preemies who passed away, she never imagined the overwhelming amount of positive feedback she would receive.

“We provide some comfort for families at a time of loss or about a time they are about to lose their baby by giving them something to remember their baby by,” Milbert said. “It is a keepsake for them.”

Milbert, the founder of Littlest Angels, has been providing local families with precious moments and peace of mind since May 2014.

Submitted photo: Aimee Robeson
Aimee Robeson, of Butler, lost her daughter, Eliana Hope Roberson, on July 12. Submitted photo: Aimee Robeson.

“Being able to keep the dress, it is that reminder, because when you go through that experience, one of the main things is you’re afraid you’re going to forget what the baby looks like or forget that time with them,” said Aimee Robeson, of Butler, who lost her daughter, Eliana Hope Roberson, on July 12.

“So, the dress for us—and in the future going forward—if you miss her or you just kind of want to go back in that moment, you can pull that dress out . . . I think just having that keepsake helps you not to forget.”

The dress gave Eliana life, Robeson said.

“It enabled us to still have that after birth experience and see her look so beautiful,” she said.

A neonatal intensive care nurse at Magee-Women’s Hospital at UPMC, Milbert decided to utilize her talents as a seamstress and provide families with something to ease the suffering. She was inspired by a service similar at NICU Helping Hands, a Texas-based foundation that redesigns donated wedding and communion gowns to fit babies who have suffered premature deaths in hospitals.

Milbert discovered the need when she heard that families often have trouble finding dresses small enough to fit the small babies. She said families were often forced to shop for burial gowns at doll stores, which could be a very painful experience.

“I started it just at Magee, where I work. And then it just started spreading to a lot of other hospitals,” she said. “It was about six or seven months into it before I decided to name it so people had something tangible to go to.”

Submitted photo: Aimee Robeson
“I think just having that keepsake helps you not to forget,” Aimee Robeson said. Submitted photo: Aimee Robeson

Losing a little one can be a devastatingly traumatic event for families, but Milbert believes that her efforts can help them through the pain.

“You’re going through this tragedy and you can’t really think these things through,” said Erin Prem of the North Hills. “It brought us comfort in that hospital room that very day and now it is bringing us comfort [at home].”

Prem’s daughter, Mary Elizabeth, was stillborn on May 19, 2015. Prem calls herself a “fortunate recipient” of Milbert’s work.

“It is a symbol of our daughter and a way to talk about her to people in our home,” she said.

Littlest Angels is Milbert’s project, but she works with a team of 8 to 10 other volunteer seamstresses, mostly nurses who help deconstruct wedding, communal and bridal dresses and repurpose them into the gowns for families in need.

“[The parents] are so excited with how the baby looks, it gives them such a moment of peace,” Milbert said.  “And for the littlest babies, that’s probably the only piece of clothing they’ll ever wear because they’re so tiny.”

Milbert originally offered her services just for patients at Magee Women’s hospital, but since its inception, Littlest Angels has received over 800 gowns, so they now provide their dresses to more than 20 hospitals. These hospitals include local Pittsburgh-area hospitals and ones in Hershey, Pa., Toledo, Ohio, and as far south as South Carolina.

“It has spread by worth-of-mouth. It just means so much to parents,” Milbert said. “They’ve told me they open the box, they look at the gown and they remember the short time they were able to see their baby wearing it and that just means so much. Being able to spread that to more families makes me very happy.”

Milbert recently received a “Hometown Heroes” award from KDKA-TV’s Larry Richert. Submitted photo.

Her honorable work has earned her some recognition. Milbert was recently nominated for Pittsburgh’s KDKA “Hometown Heroes” award.

She also won the Cameo of Caring Award in November 2015. The Littlest Angels’ Facebook page has nearly 1,000 likes.

“[Facebook] has been very influential,” Milbert said. “One person hears about it, they like it they tell their friends and it just keeps getting spread that way. It is almost a daily thing I get an e-mail.”

For Milbert the services Littlest Angels provides aren’t about personal accolades, she said. It is about helping parents remember their children.

“I can’t turn anybody down. I accept every gown that is given to me,” she said.

The staff at NEXTpittsburgh writes about the people driving change in the region and the innovative and cool things happening here.