Oct. 19

Creating Personalized Gowns for Seriously Ill Children, She Makes Hospital Stays a Little Less Scary

Each year, L'Oréal Paris and Points of Light recognize, celebrate and support Women of Worth who make a beautiful difference in their communities. For exceptional commitment to service, 10 honorees each receive a $10,000 grant to support their most cherished cause. One honoree, selected during the open online vote, receives an additional $25,000 grant.

Jessica Kidd, founder of Gracie's Gowns.

“I want children to be able to express themselves in a way that they really aren’t able to in the hospital. If they wear the same gown as everybody else, they get treated like everybody else. They’re not just Room 74, as in ‘Room 74 has cancer.’ They’re a little kid who loves Avengers and has a name,” said Jessica Kidd.

The idea of making appealing, customized hospital gowns for seriously ill children came to Kidd in a patchwork fashion. As a volunteer firefighter and first responder, Kidd hated seeing patients treated like numbers; when her own toddler was hospitalized after a fall, no tot-sized gowns were available – “just the ketchup-stained clothes she was wearing.” As someone who enjoys crafts, Kidd once created a "fashionable" hospital gown for a friend who was having a baby. “It occurred to me that I could make these in smaller sizes,” she said.

Using leftover fabric from her crafts, Kidd made some kid-sized gowns to donate to a children’s hospital, and was soon getting requests from parents. Kidd launched Gracie’s Gowns, named for a friend’s daughter who died from cancer, opening herself up to requests from around the world. She works with families to choose colors and patterns to please each child, and she embroiders each gown with the recipient’s name.

The handmade gowns are free of charge to kids up to age 18 with terminal or chronic illness. If a child outgrows or damages the gown, another is made, also for free. Scraps of fabric are saved to make batches of tiny preemie gowns that are periodically donated to neonatal intensive care units.

If a patient dies, Kidd gives the family a teddy bear or stuffed rabbit, dressed in a gown that matches the child’s, as a keepsake. Many grieving families have saved or even framed the child’s gown itself.

Whether childhood hospitalizations occur unexpectedly or on a continual basis due to chronic or terminal illness, families appreciate anything that makes the experience more homelike and less scary.

Jackie Williamson of Virginia said dressing her 7-month-old son, Oliver, in a cute Gracie’s Gown makes it easier to deal with the repeated surgeries and procedures that have already begun for Oliver, who was born with a congenital heart defect. Before Oliver received his very own gown in a “baby super hero” print, he once was given a surgical gown that “seemed made for a 10-year-old,” said Williamson. “It was huge. I had to fold it up and wrap it around.”

Debbie Warner of West Virginia, whose daughter, Lacey, also had a congenital heart defect, said she brought blankets from home to make the room a little more personal during her daughter’s multiple hospitalizations in Boston until her death at age 16. Lacey died before Warner received the Gracie’s Gown she’d requested, but Warner was amazed when Kidd sent her a teddy bear, dressed in a gown with Lacey’s name embroidered on it.

“That bear is very special to us,” said Warner, who was so touched that she arranged to have 26 gowns in various sizes made and delivered to the cardiac unit at Boston Children’s Hospital. All of them are embroidered with a smiling monkey because “Lacey loved monkeys.”

Since the inception of Gracie’s Gowns in 2006, Kidd has donated more than 2,800 gowns to families and hospitals all across the United States, as well as in Australia, France, Brazil, Ireland, the Philippines, and other countries. An additional 3,000 preemie gowns have been donated to NICUs at hospitals nationwide.

“For doctors and nurses, the gowns are a great conversation starter,” said Kidd. For patients, the gowns are more comfortable and dignified than wearing ill-fitting hospital fare – or going naked during tests and surgeries, as she’s observed children often do.

Kidd continuously consults with parents and nurses to improve the design of the customized hospital gowns, such as installing snaps instead of ties and having openings in the front and shoulder area for ease of inserting chemotherapy ports. No metal is used, allowing the gowns to stay on for MRIs or X-rays.

She’s come up with a way to cheer up the siblings of young patients as well: by designing stuffed frogs for them. “Because the frogs are more time-consuming to make and I have only two part-time assistants, I’ve been asking families to help pay for those,” said Kidd, who has generously donated frogs for siblings of deceased patients, “if there’s enough fabric left from the child’s gown.”

Kidd has also dreamed up clever ways to raise money for Gracie’s Gowns. She’s had success with creating quilts out of pieces of fabric from every gown made each year and raffling it off the following January. Her current fundraiser is a puzzle composed of inspiring messages written by contributors. The final puzzle will be framed in double-sided glass.

In addition, Kidd is looking into a new way to help families with hospitalized kids in her area – her goal is to coordinate with local farms to gather fresh vegetables, eggs, and meat for them. “That way they’re not eating fast food several nights a week,” she said.

In 2015, Kidd was honored with the Dunkin’ Donuts Community Hero Award in the Washington, D.C., metro area. In 2014, Gracie’s Gowns was one of 100 recipients of $1,000 grants given by the Jolly Time Popcorn Kernels of Kindness recognition program. This year, Jessica Kidd is the recipient of a Daily Point of Light Award.

If Kidd were to receive additional L’Oréal Paris Women of Worth funding, she’d use part of it to purchase a commercial-grade embroidery machine. “But the majority of it I’d use to establish a care fund to help families who travel more than two hours to the hospital, to cover expenses such as meals, parking fees, groceries, etc.,” she said. “Other funds could help people with bereavement expenses, such as headstones, counseling, or paying off final medical bills.”

Kidd, who has been a single mother to three children of her own – including one with special needs – estimates she spends anywhere from 60 to 90 hours per week sewing gowns, packaging and shipping them, plus updating the nonprofit’s website and social media. In addition, Kidd makes an effort to meet families in person. “I’ll drive as long as three hours one way to visit them,” she said. Other families communicate via email or Facebook. “I call them all my kids.”

“[Jessica] is such a sweet person,” said Nichole Coffin of West Virginia, whose baby daughter, Paisley, wore an adorable pink paisley Gracie’s Gown with an owl motif as she underwent heart surgery. “She sent along little multicolored socks that matched perfectly,” said Coffin of Kidd. “But it didn’t stop there. She sent emails to check on me – even though she was a patient in the hospital herself at the time. To think a stranger cared enough about our situation to do this.”

Show your support for Jessica Kidd by voting for her, and learn more about the other extraordinary L'Oréal Women of Worth honorees.

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