It takes an army to fight a war and it takes the proper weapons to defeat an enemy.
One weapon in the battle against coronavirus is the surgical facemask. There’s no knowing how many are needed, but given projections of a surge in COVID-19 cases, those on the front lines – first responders, care givers and hospitals – could be caught short handed.
Jeanelle deJager-Paul of Lincoln was alarmed when she learned there could be a shortage of personal protection equipment (PPE) and then she thought, “I can sew … I can make masks.” She Googled surgical masks and put her skill to work to produce a prototype that she showed the staff at Lifespan. It got a thumbs-up and she was given the patterns for three masks along with material to make more.
That was just the beginning. deJager-Paul enlisted her friend Dawn Kerr of Providence. When it takes anywhere from 15 to 45 minutes to make a mask, she knew she would need an army to protect any army. Together, they rallied about 20 of their friends to sew masks. They formed a Facebook group – SewHopeSNE – and then as deJager-Paul says “it exploded.” That was March 20. In hours people from across Rhode Island and nearby Massachusetts signed on to help. The group mushroomed to 600 and as of Monday was continuing to grow at about 50 a day. Some who signed up are individuals and like so many are sequestered in their homes and anxious to do something. Then there were sewing bees and clubs that brought in 20 and 30 more volunteers at a time.
As of Monday, the team had sewn 2,600 masks. Most masks went to Lifespan and to fill requests from groups that had learned of the effort and were desperate to get them. This week SewHopeSNE also started sewing for Care New England.
deJager-Paul finds she really doesn’t have the time to sew. The effort takes coordination from the distribution of materials provided by the hospitals to their collection and delivery. Masks are individually packaged in plastic bags. Before they are used, deJager-Paul said they are sterilized by the receiver. The masks are washable and reusable.
“We are not making any claims to what they should do,” deJager-Paul cautions, although the patterns and materials fit the definition of surgical masks.
deJager-Paul works as an analyst for Lifespan. The effort was in no way a directive of Lifespan. “We’re doing this on our own,” she said.
Both women, friends for the past seven years, have families to care for on top of heading up SewHopeSNE. Two of deJager-Paul’s five children are home from college; two more are in school but learning from home, while the fifth is not living at home. A mother of six children ranging in age from 10 to 22, Kerr is comfortable with kids being at home. She home schools. Her husband, a graphics designer, also works from home.
While SewHopeSNE has gained recognition and requests from well beyond Rhode Island, deJager-Paul is keeping the focus on Southern New England. Its ranks of volunteers aren’t large enough to handle anything more … yet.