A mighty force begins with an idea.
By Jennifer Hall Lee
After the California lockdown orders were issued by Governor Newsom on March 19 and all non-essential businesses were ordered to close, national news about the shortages of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for health care workers. For many it was unthinkable that our hospitals were lacking vital life-saving equipment.
Because of Covid-19 we are now engaged in a new way of living. Our priorities have shifted. As the pillars of our government seem to fall down around us many people are stepping into action nationally and locally.
Zofia and Heidi
Altadena resident Zofia Kostryko-Edwards, a professional artist and designer wanted to make some face masks for the employees at the Grocery Outlet, an Altadena grocery store. After Zofia finished sewing her masks she dropped them off at the store anonymously. She then asked her friends if they knew anyone in the medical community who was in need. Her friend Heidi Hirsch responded that she knew an ER nurse who did indeed need masks, so Zofia kept sewing and she posted the images of her masks on Facebook.
At the same time Bob Wasson had been hearing about the shortages of PPE and had started drawing some ideas for items he could produce. Bob owns VFXLab in Riverside, a special effects company for movies and theme parks. He wrote letters to the White House, the Governor’s and Los Angeles Mayor’s office and offered to help them think differently about the challenges we face with PPE.
He is a friend and colleague of Zofia Kostryko-Edwards and when he saw her Facebook post he offered to “laser cut” her mask patterns for her. Since this would expedite her process she accepted.
Ideas swirl around us
As I hear these stories of people connecting with each other on how to help solve our problems I find myself wondering if one idea leads to another or maybe ideas don’t really belong to us at all. Perhaps they just swirl around us invisibly and we simply make the subconscious decision to select one and make it physical. For me this explains why several people seem to have the same idea at the same time.
As Zofia, Bob and Heidi were communicating with each other, another Altadena resident, Katie Clark, unknown to the previous three, said to herself “I should sew a face mask” but remembered one salient fact: “I’m not super good at sewing.”
So, on March 24 she posted on social media that she was looking for people who wanted to join her in making masks.
The responses were numerous and one person was Zofia. So now Katie was connected to Bob and Heidi. As Katie Clark said, “We decided to combine forces.”
Katie Clark worked quickly and efficiently on the infrastructure, the website and the organizing of volunteers. The contacting of nurses and other essential workers was another necessary task. Within days her work was solidifying into something quite large. Heidi said to me, “The next thing I know this machine is happening.
The Altadena Mask Project (AMP) was born.
The Altadena Mask Project now has over 80 volunteers. They fabricate, process and cut fabric, receive donations and sew. They drive and deliver to hospitals, retirement homes, and other places with essential workers.
Zofia, now the AMP Master Sewer, had chosen a particular mask pattern for AMP by researching which mask would be best. “We make a fabric mask out of a design put together by a nurse. It’s a mask that fits tight and can be rewashed many times” said Katie Clark. They are also beautiful as Zofia said, “We make them from beautiful fabrics. We want to make sure they not only protect but bring joy.”
Bob, now the AMP Fabricator and Inventor, laser cuts the fabrics. “We are able to cut out fabrics to make 30-40 masks in a few minutes.” The pieces are delivered as a kit to the sewers. He also fabricates the ear savers for the masks so that the wearers ears don’t get irritated by the elastic. Additionally, he makes face shields at his Riverside shop. “We came up with our own design,” he has, and they have made over “600 face shields so far.”
Hundreds of yards of batik and calicos have been donated. Athene Raphael is the official Fabric Team Captain and she processes the donated fabric. She handles the fabric with gloves, washes and dries it and then cuts it into manageable pieces for laser cutting.
She finds the current situation to be amazing as “the nature of it [Covid-19] requires us to separate. We’ve found all these other ways to come together and unify.”
The day I spoke with Katie she had shipped 154 face masks with ear savers and over 200 face shields to a nearby hospital.
When you are making items to save lives it is natural to have emotions.
Gloria Roberts, a driver, told me that when she heard of the PPE shortages for the nurses “it tore my heart apart.”
Maritza Larreta-Moylan saw the AMP call for volunteers who wanted to sew face masks on Monica Hubbard’s newsletter (The Altadena Women’s Network is a popular online weekly newsletter) and she said to herself “I could easily plug in.” It makes her feel good to help but she has mixed emotions. “It comes down to people like us at a very local and minimal level to protect health care providers”
Jeanette Santillan, a coordinator and a team captain, feels good “that we are doing our part in taking care of the people who are taking care of us.”
The raw humanity
Heidi Hirsch, a team captain for drivers, said she has delivered “about 100 masks and over 200 shields to hospitals” and she sees the raw humanity. “If you look at an individual with a mask on…they tell you with their eyes how grateful they are.”
Elsa Martin, a seamstress, sews masks, and her husband does the markings to help her. It gives her a sense of community and she finds it comforting. When she gets her delivery of fabric she waves to the person on the other side of the window.
Zofia was born in Poland during communism. She remembers seeing shortages of everything in Warsaw. She said that the buying out of toilet paper here in the United States was “deja vu.” For her our situation is “absolutely terrifying.”
The Altadena Mask Project is a veritable volunteer superhighway that creates and moves masks and face shields, as Zofia told me, “From Riverside to the Westside.”
The need hasn’t diminished, in fact it’s growing in new directions.
Bob has delivered over 600 face shields to health care workers, for AMP as well as supporting “our own efforts in the inland empire.” He told me that he is currently discussing ventilator designs with “people on the east coast.”
Generosity is flowing these days and I’d be remiss if I didn’t tell the story of how I acquired my first hand-sewn face mask.
In early April Altadena resident Jean Buennagel, posted online that she had hand-sewn face masks and invited us to come get one. I already owned a mask, but my husband needed one. So, I drove over to Jean’s house and there on her porch in a small basket was a pretty array of masks in different fabrics. I wondered which one my husband would wear: vintage floral or neutral denim? I chose one.
Although the curtains were open, I couldn’t see anyone inside the house. Twice I turned to leave only to turn back to the picture window. I didn’t want to leave without acknowledging Jean’s work, I mean, maybe she was in there and I just couldn’t see her.
So, I waved at the window. It just felt like the right thing to do.
When it’s over…
Gloria Roberts hopes that when the Covid-19 pandemic is over the people of the Altadena Mask Project can have a party so they can meet one another without masks and gloves. “The whole project is a perfect example of how people come together and end up doing a small part that helps with a big problem.”
The Altadena Mask Project accepts donations at altadenamaskproject.org.
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