ALTAMONTE SPRINGS, Fla. - Every wedding gown tells a story, and so does every angel gown.
Virginia Cortes pulled out five white satin dresses from a rack in a sunlit workshop. Soon, the donated dresses will be transformed.
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"So she sent a little note, 'Enclosed you'll find my old wedding gown from 1998,'" Cortes said.
Now, that dress will serve a new purpose -- a gift for grieving parents.
"These are for the early miscarriages," Cortes said as she opened a small plastic package with a white embroidered blanket.
Cortes' organization, Sunshine State Angel Gowns, collects donated wedding dresses from brides and transforms them into bereavement gowns for children who never leave the hospital.
"Because nobody goes into the hospital thinking that their baby's not going to come home with them," Cortes said.
Her workshop has received gowns from all over Central Florida, some still with tags, others from out of state.
She said the volunteers take the donated gowns, remove the crinoline then deconstruct them and package them with a photo. Those packages are then gifted to parents so they can have a final outfit for their child.
"Gifting a mother this outfit, it's one less thing that she checks off her list," Cortes said, talking about a list she knows personally.
Cortes lost her son Robert Junior "Tito" when he was five and a half years old. The family had just finished renovating their home to be handicap accessible.
"On the way to the hospital, he died in my arms," Cortes said. "When I went to the store to get that last outfit for my son, I only had $50, and when she told me the total that it was $75 I completely just broke down, and I started crying."
Cortes said it was nearly impossible to verbalize her overwhelming feeling of agony.
"She kept asking me what was wrong and I really couldn't talk. Finally she got me some water, when I finally calmed down, I was able to tell her what my problem was, and she ended up saying don't worry about it. So she ended up gifting me my son's clothes," she said.
Cortes called it a life-altering moment. Shortly after, she began sewing angel gowns for an organization in Texas.
"I started putting them together and once I had enough, I started going out to the hospitals. And that's where I saw -- wow, there is a big need. And every day it just grows more and more it's just people don't talk about it, it's a taboo. And we want to break the silence," Cortes said.
Now Cortes has delivered angel gowns to hospitals as far north as Tallahassee to as far south as Fort Myers. She said the biggest challenge is recruiting volunteers, and many people consider what she does as "morbid."
"We talk and it brings healing, talking about our babies is the most important thing, we don't want them forgotten," Cortes said.
Right now Sunshine State Angel Gowns is in need of volunteers, Cortes offers to teach beginners how to sew, and is recruiting high school students in need of community service hours.
"It's all through word of mouth and social media," Cortes said.
She hopes to one day thank the woman who gifted her the outfit for her son, the store was sold shortly after they met.
To learn more about the organization, visit Facebook.com/SunshineStateAngelGowns.
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