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20 Years of Halloween Costumes in the NICU

Dorothy Williams knows from experience that the little things make a big difference.

For 20 years, Dorothy has led dozens of volunteers in creating custom-made Halloween costumes for Cedars-Sinai's tiniest patients in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at the Maxine Dunitz Children's Health Center.

Costumes like pumpkins, pea pods, baseball players, Wonder Woman, corn on the cob, and butterflies are all hand-cut, sewn, and carefully designed not to interfere with medical equipment.

"This is one way families and their babies can be part of a world that is not about monitoring medical equipment and information 24 hours a day in the hospital," says Dorothy. "And for many families, this is the first time they see their child as a baby instead of a patient."

A tiny thing can make all the difference

A kind gesture by a nurse almost 40 years ago inspired Dorothy to start making costumes.

"For many families, this is the first time they see their child as a baby instead of a patient."

Dorothy had given birth to premature twins and on their tenth day in the NICU—which happened to be Valentine's Day—a nurse left a little gold foil heart in the baby's incubator with this message: "Happy Valentine's Day. I love you Mom."

"That small gesture meant so much to me," says Dorothy. "A tiny thing like that can make all the difference in how you feel."

For 20 years, Dorothy Williams and her volunteers have created Halloween costumes for the Cedars-Sinai's tiniest patients in the NICU. Costumes like pumpkins, peapods, and Yoda are all handmade and designed not to interfere with medical equipment.

No going back

A few months after her own experience as a NICU mom, Dorothy began volunteering with the Cedars-Sinai Good Beginnings program. Since 1979, the group has helped support NICU families through an experience that is often frightening and lonely.

Remembering the gold heart that had brought her comfort, Dorothy started making tiny holiday-themed beanies for the babies to celebrate holidays throughout the year.

One Halloween in 1997, Dorothy decided to go all-out: The babies' tiny pumpkin hats grew into tiny Halloween costumes. And then there was no going back—Halloween costumes became an annual highlight in the Cedars-Sinai NICU.

When Dorothy is not making Halloween costumes, she continues to make handmade hats for Valentine's Day, Fourth of July, Mother's Day, and Father's Day.

"I discovered fairly early on that this not only made a difference to families, but it was also making a difference for the staff. It was giving them a joyful day," she says. "Most of them would start talking about it weeks before and start telling families about it. It then just took on life of its own, and a joyous one at that."

Over the past 20 years, the costumes have gotten more elaborate, but the goal has remained the same: to provide emotional support to families whose babies are in the NICU.

It takes a village

Every summer, Dorothy starts planning the types of costumes she'll make for that Halloween. By September, patterns and fabric are draped across tables and couches in her living room and multiple sewing machines are set up on the dining room table.

Dorothy has a team of friends, family, and Cedars-Sinai employees who volunteer their time to help make the costumes every year.

Joy Peterman cuts tiny bits of fabric to create a Lorax costume for Cedars-Sinai's NICU babies. She has helped Dorothy create the Halloween costumes for 20 years.

This year, Dorothy's 13-year-old granddaughter Emma is helping. Emma and a friend have teamed up as part of their Girl Scout Silver Award to make costumes inspired by children's book characters. In addition to the costumes, families will receive the corresponding book as a gift.

"We wanted to encourage the love of reading from a young age, and we figure even though they will grow out of the costume, the child could grow up with the book," says Emma.

Dorothy and her granddaughter Emma discuss patterns with Kathleen Boeck, a Cedars-Sinai employee who has helped make the NICU Halloween costumes for 10 years. Parents have a variety of costumes to choose from thanks to volunteers like Kathleen, who make the outfits by hand.

Dorothy admits that when she started making the tiny costumes 20 years ago, she never imagined that the NICU Halloween costumes would grow into something that has inspired so many people to help and also makes such a huge impact on many families' lives.

"I love being able to make a difference in the lives of so many people," says Dorothy. "We know it's the NICU, and it can be scary, but no matter where you are in the journey, this is a way to celebrate your baby."

For 20 years, Dorothy Williams and a team of friends, family, and Cedars-Sinai staff have dedicated their personal time to create Halloween costumes for the hospital's NICU patients.