Updated: Jun 15, 2020
Our Village: The Beginning of Our Journey
In early March, the sense of panic grew as each news report and each Fauci press conference pointed to an inevitable pandemic that would overwhelm our heathcare providers. For weeks, my doctor friend Juliana had been saying there was a mask shortage. She said it was going to be particularly difficult for hospitals with fewer resources. Another friend Kyndra, texted photos of her sister-in-law doctor in Emergency Services at Zuckerberg SF General outfitted with donated hair bonnets and face shields. Still another friend, Roxane sent a photo of face masks that her quilting group had been sewing. I wondered what I could do to help.
After watching Anderson Cooper’s COVID Town Hall, I admired the couple who were 3D printing and making face shields as donations. If they could make a meaningful impact from their home, why can’t I? If there was a way to help, I was going to do it. I wasn't going to spend one more minute panicking in front of my news feed. At 11 pm that night, I sent a text to a friend, Bryan Walker, of Bryn Walker Women’s Clothing “Would you have any cotton fabric I could buy”. If anyone knew where there might be fabric available in the Bay Area, it was Bryan. “What did I want the fabric for?” he texted back. I replied, “to make fabric face masks to donate to healthcare workers. I have 10 friends, we think we could make 1,000.” Although I hadn't seen Bryan in 2 years we synced up immediately and our entrepreneurial instincts took over. Within 3 days of that first text, Bryn Walker had cut enough fabric for 5,000 masks and had filled every single one of my crazy asks: elastic for face masks, plastic bags, cardboard cartons for face shields, elastic for face shields. Bryan and his partner/wife Michelle didn’t ask one question and they didn’t ask for one cent. They said, “make the best mask that you can, and get them out there.” The masks we made were no ordinary masks. Michelle had gone through their inventory of fine fashion textiles and cut some extraordinary prints for us to use.
With inventory for 5,000 masks, we were off and running. We still didn’t exactly know what the masks were going to be used for, or who we were going to donate to. In our early days, we were driven by a dream that if we could get the masks into the hands of healthcare workers, we could mask the pandemic away. We didn’t spare one day, one hour, one minute. We cut, sewed and donated as fast as we could. We heard from our doctor friends that fabric masks were being accepted at some hospitals in case there was a shortage of surgical masks. The surgical and/or fabric masks could also be used as N95 covers, meaning the mask goes over the N95 that a doctor is given when they are working with COVID patients to protect the N95 and keep it clean from the virus. In many cases, a doctor is given only one N95 to last days. The fabric masks are washable and thus a good solution if they needed to be used as N95 covers.
I was busy searching for sewists and reached out to another entrepreneur, Joan. She and I anchored the hospital outreach and we started calling hospitals asking if they would accept our donations. Paired with the knowledge of doctors in the field, we started early on targeting healthcare providers (hospitals or medical centers) serving the underserved or vulnerable populations. Some hospitals don’t accept fabric face masks, but many did, primarily helping the underserved. With our high volume capabilities that came with Bryn Walker's large quantity of fabric and with a few of Bryn Walker's sewists sewing for a time to help us catch up, we have made a reputation in the Bay Area of being able to provide large quantities of masks. 8,000 requested by Alameda Health Systems, 1,000 by Healthright 360, 5,000 by Zuckerberg SF General to name a few. Our donees relay our quantities make a difference, allowing them to program out and designate clear uses for the masks we provide. When we added clear plastic face shields to our production, our shields were in extremely high demand at every hospital.
When we started, we had no idea how many other people would want to help make masks. Within 3 days we had 30 sewists. In the next week that core group swelled to 60 and we decided to start a Facebook group called “It Takes A Village”. By then, we were well organized into various teams cutting elastic, packing mask kits, washing and pressing masks and sorting out driving schedules. My friend, Julia’s driveway became our “dock” where all of the pick-ups started. She fell into helping make the kits after I brought back piles of cut fabric from Bryn Walker, and by the next week, she was managing elastic cutters and washers and pressers and I drafted her as my Co-Chair. By week 3, We added Eva, first to take over the wash and press team, and soon after she became the third necessary Co-Chair to run our growing organization.
Phie has called this a movement. As we were making, we could feel the ground move under us. Our desire to help was infectious. The acts of creating, making and giving calm the soul. We could blot out the daily news reports of the number of infections, the number of deaths, the number of states infected, the number of unemployed with the knowledge that with one mask, one shield at a time we were helping.
As rumors of Universal Masking became the standard practice, we were madly accepting more sewists, cutting more fabric, trying to stay ahead. All of a sudden, many hospitals who previously did not want fabric masks, needed fabric masks for all of their employees. Our requests for fabric masks swelled from 5,000 to 15,000 in a week.
In the early weeks, Bryan and I spent hours talking about if there was really a need and how could we be the crazy solution? But we just had to talk with our healthcare friends to know that we were living in a world where healthcare workers are sent to war without protection. The Supply chain for PPE was broken and now it was up to us, home sewists, hobbyists, entrepreneurs to fill that vacuum.
I am asked all of the time, is there really a need for this many face shields and face masks? How could it be that we have donated close to 26,000 face masks and still haven’t filled all of the requests. Haven’t we made enough face shields already? When we started, we thought shelter in place would last a month, we could work really hard for one month, and make our 5,000 masks. As of the writing of this in the first week of June, we hope to be out of shelter in place by mid June and we have donated close to 26,000 masks and close to 9,000 face shields. Yet, the requirement of Universal Masking may well go for another 6 months, even a year. Since we started, our users of masks has changed. The hospitals currently have enough surgical masks, but still not enough N95’s. Our masks are now used by hospitals in the home health care communities or are passed out at testing centers to patients who aren’t wearing masks. The fabric masks are preferred because they can be washed multiple times. There is no question the face shields are used, needed and desired at every hospital. Face shields are standard first line protection and can be cleaned and be reused. As we start to open up, the number of users in the hospital is increasing the use of shields. All departments in the hospital (not just the emergency department) that come in close contact with patients are requesting shields such as the dentistry and optometry departments.
Bryn Walker donates to many causes, but Bryan says you never really know where the money goes. In this case, the need is right here. I feel as if we are in the front line of a war and the trenches are each hospital or medical center that you drive by, right around the corner. I tell Bryan the stories about Dr. Rachel Chin at Zuckerberg, my sister-in-law at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital, my friends at Elmhurst hospital in New York, how they use them and why they need them.
When we named our group “It Takes A Village” I could not have imagined how fitting a name that would become. Our Village is a community that understands the urgent needs of underfunded public and community health facilities and we share the satisfaction in providing solutions to fill those needs. We are a community of values and goals, with teamwork and organization to make good things happen. On a more personal level, I feel that I have best friends, many of whom I have never met, but whom I could ask the world of, and depend on. Our Village is filled with members who cut sheets for hours on end with a pair of scissors and sewists who take those parts and turn them into beautiful masks. Middle school Mikey cuts thousands of pieces of elastic and stays up all night because “we need to get this done!”. Lisa picks up 5,000 face shield kits and has them all assembled and donated in less than a week. Christine has driven every day since the 2nd week of March and she wants to drive even more. Betty single handedly sews 350 masks in a month. Scout groups assemble thousands of face shields. And corporate donations of hand sanitizer, surgical gloves, protective overalls, face shields, boxes and boxes of fabric and latex gloves continue to come in for us to distribute through our contacts.
There are so many of you that I haven’t met in person, but I’ve traded an email, we have shared a facebook post, you are a friend. Please know that I am grateful for all of you.
If you are Villager, you should volunteer to do a donation delivery. When the pandemic started and my heart was aching for the healthcare workers, I had dreams that I could help in a hospital. With Covid, they won’t let you in the door, but they will let you into the parking lot. And if you want to cry, do a donation delivery. This will put to rest any doubts that our work is not needed or not appreciated. Just scroll through some of the pictures in our facebook page to see the smiles and thanks that greet us when we deliver our products.
I’ve been asked by our core group, when will the hospitals be able to purchase PPE on their own. We haven’t seen any movement towards that yet. More than ever, the health centers are fearing the next wave in the fall or beyond. Some hospitals are in a position to stock up for the next wave. Most that we are serving are still scrambling for the moment. And as we reopen here in the Bay Area, many of the volunteer groups have fallen off or are closing down. We hope and pray that the health crisis will abate and that a vaccine will come sooner rather than later. There is no certainty as to what the future holds, but what we can say with certainty is that masks and shields have made and will continue to make a difference. All of the above warms my heart and I call this our unforgettable journey together because “It Takes A Village”.