It’s difficult to describe the work done by a small group of volunteers each month at All Saints Lutheran Church in Darwin.
Incredibly rewarding, and yet, unbelievably sad.
“It is difficult sometimes,” said LaVonne Nelson, one of the earliest volunteers for the Angel Dresses ministry at the church. “But I think all of us feel so blessed to be part of this project. It makes you feel good to do something really worthwhile. It’s such a unique thing.”
During the past two or three years — no one seems to remember exactly when they started — the dedicated group of women has sewn more than 2,000 miniature dresses, all of them donated to hospitals throughout Minnesota, intended as the final outfits worn by infants who have died.
“I had never heard of anything like this,” Lorraine Terlinden, an Arlington resident with a home on Lake Erie in Meeker County, said. “I’m happy that I can help with it though.”
Angel Dresses was inspired by Patty Hauer, administrator at All Saints Lutheran. In an earlier career, Hauer was a coroner and paramedic.
It was in that job that she was struck by the deaths of babies, those miscarried or who died in childbirth, and the overwhelming grief that enveloped the parents and other family members.
“You would see these babies … that had nothing,” Hauer recalled. “And I felt so bad. Even the coroner’s office only had ratty old blankets to wrap them in.”
She wasn’t the only one affected by this. She remembered another woman who worked in the coroner’s office who painted the fingernails and toenails of infant girls, just to give them something.
“I thought, it’s just so said,” Hauer said. “And you can’t afford to buy stuff for them all the time — there’s a lot more babies (who die) than people realize.
“So, it was always in the back of my mind,” she added. “What could I do?”
The answer arrived one day as she was “surfing through Pinterest, like half the world,” and found a pattern for infant dresses. She printed the pattern and brought it to church, where she gave it to Nelson, who sewed the first prototype. After receiving feedback, Hauer tinkered with the pattern to make it easier to sew.
Soon, they had a pattern that could be shared and taught to others to sew.
And the project began to take off. It has grown from a small group of women at All Saints Lutheran to include about 50 volunteers from Meeker and McLeod counties, the Twin Cities, Wisconsin and even Florida.
“They just hear by accident,” Hauer said. “We have about 10 members from the church. The rest … come other ways, directions, whatever it takes.”
Those volunteers are much appreciated, and many more are needed, Hauer said, to keep up with the demand. The original goal of the ministry — to provide angel dresses to hospitals throughout the region — has grown to providing the dresses to every hospital in Minnesota. And if the volunteers can be found, perhaps expanding to other areas of the country.
“I need more sewers,” Hauer said with a smile. “They can just call the church.”
Each angel dress is accompanied by a blanket and tiny hat. And it isn’t just dresses. The women also sew outfits for little boys, some that include vests and bowties. Every package also includes a poem, a Bible verse and a calling card with contact information for hospitals to request additional angel dresses.
Most of the outfits are created from wedding dresses, though early on in the ministry, volunteers found other material.
“We were using fancy antique doilies, pillowcases, whatever we could,” Hauer said.
They received an enormous boost — borne out of sadness — about a year ago. A Richmond, Minnesota, couple’s twins had died. Nurses at the hospital clothed the twins in angel dresses created by All Saints Lutheran sewers before bringing them to the family.
The mother was so moved by the gesture, she shared her story on social media, and people responded by donating more than 200 wedding dresses, money and gift cards.
Those dresses have methodically been turned into angel dresses ever since, though there are still about 50 dresses in storage, awaiting more sewers to join the project, Hauer said.
And they receive more dresses all the time. As volunteers gathered recently to package angel dresses and prepare them for shipping to hospitals in the Twin Cities, many shared stories about receiving anonymous dress donations — some wedding dresses, some prom dresses.
“I swear, every week someone is calling (and saying), ‘I have a dress for you,’” said Terry Suess, a Biscay resident and one of Hauer’s three nieces who volunteer for the ministry.
One found a wedding dress left outside her front door. Another found an unfinished wedding dress left in her husband’s room at a memory care facility with a note simply saying, “Maybe you can use this.” Another received dresses from an entire wedding party, donated after the wedding was called off.
“You can’t tell them no,” said Gayle Maurer of Stewart, another of Hauer’s nieces. “You have to take them.”
Some donors make one request — that they might get a picture of the angel dress created from their donated dress.
In addition to dresses, the group also receives — and welcomes — cash and other material donations.
“People have been so generous with their donations,” Nelson said. “And that’s really what has allowed us to keep going. It’s been wonderful.”
To help fund their work, volunteers also sew other items then donate them to be sold at craft fairs, such as one coming up in early November at 3M in Hutchinson.
And as much as the project is about providing dignity and love to babies who have died, creating angel dresses seems, in some ways, a therapeutic reward for the participants.
Carol Smith of Hutchinson said she learned about the Angel Dresses ministry through “a little blurb in the church bulletin.”
“It was the perfect time in my life, because I had just moved and my husband is in memory care, and I’m home alone a lot,” Smith said. “And I love to sew.”
Dianne Cannon, a Grove City resident, said before joining the Angel Dresses group, she had been a longtime knitter. She knits caps and sews blankets for the packages, seeing it as a way to honor her mother, who suffered two miscarriages in the 1940s.
“They didn’t do anything like this back then,” Cannon said. “Mom’s gone, but (this is) kind of a tribute to her. I think she must know.”
Litchfield High School theater students sang “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” during a recent rehearsal for their production of “Mary Poppins.”
"(Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious) is just a very, very fun song,” director Sara Dollerschell said. “If people have seen the movie, this is a different version of that. It’s the same, and they add onto it. Kids will have to spell the word, and it’s very long, and it’s a very intricate dancing. And then a number of them turn into chimney sweeps later on, and they get to pretend that they’re dancing up on the rooftops of buildings. And that’s a really fun thing to do, so something very different.”
A cast of 28 high school actors, under Dollerschell’s direction, will perform the classic “Mary Poppins,” starting tomorrow at Bernie Aaker Auditorium. The show runs 7 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday, with 2 p.m. show Sunday.
The protagonist of the story, Mary Poppins, is played by junior Portia Lawrence. Mary Poppins is a nanny for the Banks children, Jane and Michael.
“What Mary Poppins does is she comes in to be the nanny and really repairs the family,” Dollerschell said. “She puts it back together. She helps (the Banks) understand what’s important in life. And by the end of the show, they realize that they are a family, and Mary Poppins is going away now, and we don’t need her anymore.”
Bert, played by senior Peter Dinius, is a chimney sweep and narrator of the play. He wears a gray newsboy cap, a black shirt, black pants, a gray pea coat, and his face is smeared with dust.
“So he narrates, but he’s also in the story,” Dollerschell said. “And he is a really low worker. He’s not high on the totem pole, he’s low class. And Mary Poppins is his friend, and it’s beneath the kids to be friends with (Bert), but they become friends with him and realize “Wow, we’re all people.” (Bert) has got something we can all learn from, too. It’s a lot of eye-opening for these kids, who go from maybe being a little spoiled, to being much more understanding of this life that we live. It’s got a great message to it and it’s an awful lot of fun.
Dinius commended Lawrence for playing her role well.
“Portia does an excellent job of playing Mary Poppins,” he said. “She’s very, very talented. It’s a really fun show, because Mary Poppins is a fantastical, kind of magical nanny. She just kind of appears out of nowhere.”
Adding to what Dinius was saying, Lawrence was reminded of a line that Mary Poppins repeats, which is “Anything can happen if you let it.”
“So all these crazy things happen,” Lawrence added. “(Mary Poppins) makes statutes come to life.”
Throughout Dinius’ 10 years of acting, he’s learned to be comfortable being silly. And through that skill learned during his acting career, he’s learned how to cheer people up. “That’s really important to me,” he said.
“You don’t want to feel silly, but if you’re not feeling silly, you’re not doing it right,” he said. “You got to be pushing yourself a little bit. This is my farewell play from high school. It’s kind of weird to see it come to an end.”
As for Lawrence, acting has pushed her out of her comfort zone, too, such as expressing emotions engagingly and energetically.
“You have got to be over the top to express what emotion you’re trying to show to the audience,” she said. “Because when you’re far away, you can’t see faces as much, it’s hard to convey the message that you want to. So every movement has to be so much bigger.”
Litchfield School District voters will be asked to increase program funding and facility improvements on Nov. 5.
The district’s referendum will come in the form of three questions, with the first being an excess levy to create additional funding for programming. Questions 2 and 3 deal with building improvements.
Approval of the proposed excess operating levy, school officials say, will maintain current class sizes, enable student access to educational materials, protect class activities and athletic programs from budget cuts and stabilize the school budget.
The district currently receives $724 per pupil, and the referendum seeks to raise the per pupil funding by $625. If approved, property tax for a home valued at $137,000 — the average home in the district — will increase by $142 per year.
“We have been (at) the very minimum, which is the $724, for five or six years,” Superintendent Beckie Simenson said. “To have a voter approved excess levy gives us more money to reinvest in our school system and in our students. And so that’s what we’ve been doing. We’ve been able to keep our finances cost neutral, but we have not been able to do anything more. As a matter of fact, that’s when we’ve had to reduce our budgets, because the state has not kept up with the cost of living increase.”
As class sizes grow due to increase in enrollment, adjustments are costly. Additional teachers are needed to keep class sizes at the optimum level, to ensure positive student learning outcomes, Simenson said.
For example, this school year there are four teachers instructing 105 third-graders at Lake Ripley Elementary School. Adding one third-grade teacher and lowering average class size to 23 would be ideal, Simenson said.
If the operating levy is approved, the funding per pupil unit will increase to $1,349, which is slightly above state average of $1,297, according to a district operating levy comparison chart.
The consequences of a failed operating levy could be fewer teachers and larger class sizes, fewer educational programs and materials, cuts to activities such as the marching band, cuts to athletic programs and higher fees for use of district facilities, according to the Dragon Proud website.
“We started this journey about a year ago,” Simenson said, alluding to how the pros — if approved — and cons — if disapproved — of the operating levy were determined. “We did a needs assessment with the School Board, talking about strengths of Litchfield Public School and … the weaknesses. And how do we want to move forward and prioritize what those needs are.”
The price tag on the West Fourth Street reconstruction went a little higher Monday night, as the Litchfield City Council approved three change orders, with a fourth — even more costly — still looming.
A portion of Fourth Street west from Sibley Avenue/U.S. Highway 12 has been under construction for several months. Storm sewer improvements along the street were undertaken as part of preparation for the Sibley/Highway 12 reconstruction project planned for 2020.
With the current construction season nearing an end, City Engineer Chuck DeWolf presented a memo with four change order requests to the City Council.
The first three changes included:
The fourth change order, which was not approved Monday, involves the removal of contaminated soil that was discovered in the area of the city’s public works department shop. The work needed to remove the contaminated soil, in addition to “dewatering” the area “impacted the (construction) schedule by several weeks and had a significant cost impact due to the treatment system being added to the dewatering system, along with decreased production time and idle time for the equipment onsite.”
The additional resources needed to mitigate the contaminated area will cost an estimated $321,000, according to MnDOT, with the city bearing at least half and up to 70 percent of the cost.
The change order for this fourth item will come back to the City Council for consideration once MnDOT finalizes the costs, according to DeWolf’s memo.
But Council member Darlene Kotelnicki questioned whether the city should share that cost.
“That was not our error,” Kotelnicki said of the discovery of the contaminated soil. Rather, the contamination was well-known — and even documented online for anyone to see, she said.
The city removed two fuel tanks from the city garage site in 1986, Kotelnicki said, and “we did our due diligence” at the time. The city should not pay for an oversight or mistake by another entity, she said.
Council member Ron Dingmann asked what would change, even if the contaminated area had been acknowledged prior to construction beginning. The city likely would still have been held responsible for the costs of mitigation.
DeWolf said the city could attempt to negotiate the cost when MnDOT comes back with its final estimate.
Kotelnicki said she worried what additional costs might lie ahead for the city, considering the four change orders presented Monday, and “we’ve got another whole year of construction.”