By Cristin Reece
Jacksonville Daily Progress
Nobody ever wants to think about it, but unfortunately not every birth ends with a happy, expanded family.
When tragedies like a still-birth or miscarriage strike, Angel Layettes is there to help families lay their little one to rest with dignity with tailor-made burial layette sets the non-profit corporation provides to hospitals completely free of charge.
"Some families have a lifetime to take pictures of and with their children," Angel Layettes founder Sharon Sikes said. "The families we serve only get one picture for their child's lifetime."
For the last decade Sikes, 70, said neither the need, nor her drive has diminished a bit.
"And as we move into our 10th year and continue to expand, I can honestly say my passion for this hasn't dimmed in the slightest," Sikes added with a laugh. "When the Holy Spirit is in control, you don't tire out! But it isn't really about us (she, her husband or staff members) -- it's always been about the families. That's why you won't find mine, or anyone else's name, on anything we do."
Sikes is a certified bereavement facilitator and volunteer chaplain and has worked for more than 30 years to support both individuals and families
experiencing grief. She said she became aware of the need her corporation meets in 2004, and saw an opportunity to use her love of sewing to help ease the pain of these families' losses.
"By partnering with hospitals around the country, Angel Layettes provides specialized burial layettes and keepsakes, at no charge, to families facing this overwhelming loss, the company's website states. "These beautiful handmade garments and blankets are specially designed to meet the needs of the small and fragile children they seek to honor. In addition, the family is presented with a matching keepsake heart to help preserve the memory of the lost little one. Due to logistics, budgets and other reasons, hospitals are not equipped to meet the needs of families who have experienced a perinatal loss. This void creates additional grief, both for the families effected by the loss, and the caregivers in the hospital who seek to help them."
As word of her service spread, Sikes said she realized the business was outgrowing her home and in 2007 formally incorporated Angel Layettes as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. In 2009, the company opened its own 3,800-square foot facility located in Gresham, dubbed The Angel House.
"We outgrew our home so fast," she remembers with a laugh. "And our manufacturing process keeps getting more and more streamlined, which is great since our shipments keep getting larger and larger. Last year we shipped 2,500 layette sets, the year before it was 2,000."
Longtime volunteer Nancy Hill added, "We've done a lot of tweaking, but every change is an improvement and makes (the manufacturing process) better!"
Now, Sikes and her husband, Arnold, oversee a staff of volunteers, who hand sew each piece of a layette set to exacting specifications set forth by hospital staff, specific to the needs of their patients and every set is provided to families absolutely free of charge. Layette sets include a gown, a hat, a blanket and a matching keepsake heart ornament.
"There's a lot of symbolism in each heart," Sikes explained. "As time passes, sometimes the memory fades. The heart in each set is made of the same fabrics (as the gowns and blankets), so parents have a little reminder of something that is exclusively their child's."
Sikes said she and her staff adhere to four core principles concerning the way the corporation operates. They are, as found on the company's website:
Angel Layettes products must acknowledge the baby’s life and provide comfort to the family while preserving their memories;
Specialized burial layettes and keepsakes should be provided to families and hospitals at no charge;
The layettes must be made with the best available materials and sewn with love and compassion in order to meet the specialized needs identified by medical staff; and,
Angel Layettes should grow large enough to help as many families as their volunteer and monetary resources allow.
"All our volunteers are a little bit of what you could call 'perfectionists'," Sikes joked.
Angel Layettes currently serves more than 40 hospitals in 15 states, the majority located in Texas. Local healthcare facilities that have partnered with Angel Layettes include Palestine Regional Medical Center in Palestine, East Texas Medical Center-Athens, Lufkin's Memorial Medical Center and Trinity Mother Frances Healthcare System-Tyler.
"I am on the front line providing care to patients so I witness the impact of this ministry on families. The layettes and keepsakes are given to families from every walk of life who find themselves thrust unexpectedly into one of life’s most distressing situations – the death of their baby during pregnancy or shortly after birth. They rarely have any warning or time to prepare. The layettes serve a vital need and the keepsakes are treasured by the families for a lifetime," medical professional and Angel Layette Board member Bonnie Tincher, RNC, CNS, MSN, stated on the company's website.
To volunteer or to find out how to help in another way, visit www.angellayettes.org or call 903-534-5212. To help support Angel Layettes, send donations to Angel Layettes, P.O. Box 6618, Tyler, TX 75711-6618.