With COVID fatigue setting in for most, it can be easy to forget the mass panic and fear so many felt at the start of the pandemic when face masks were at one point inaccessible.
Knowing hospitals, front line workers and residents were reeling from the shortage of face masks in March, three Croton-on-Hudson residents – Liz Poling-Hiraldo, Jayne Grant and Khamla Erskine –launched Croton Face Mask Makers to ensure those in need would never have to feel unsafe at work or when leaving their home.
Since March, the local group, which produces free homemade cloth face masks, has recruited about 140 residents across Westchester and Putnam counties to generate more than 36,000 masks and coverings to over 160 hospitals, shelters, schools and organizations across the state and nation.
“What keeps this going is that there is a need out there and it makes me feel good that we can address that need,” Poling-Hiraldo said. “It is a really incredible thing to be able to help those who have been forgotten and places that aren’t necessarily being helped by the government.”
On March 21, just days after New York went into lockdown due to rising coronavirus cases, the trio launched a Facebook page, imploring friends to make masks for those in need after Erskine issued concern that family members in the medical field were experiencing a shortage of PPE.
The trio and group members immediately went to work after contacting area medical professionals and hospitals that might need additional PPE, Poling-Hiraldo said. Within days of launching, hundreds of masks were produced to fulfill orders made by New York-Presbyterian Hospital, Children’s Hospital at Montefiore, and Westchester Medical Center.
Other orders included, NYU Medical Center, Bethel Nursing Home and Rehabilitation Center, and Sing Sing Correctional Facility.
By April 1, the group had made over 1,000 masks to donate, Poling-Hiraldo said, with requests coming in from all over through outreach and word of mouth. In August, the group had surpassed 25,000 masks donated, with the number exceeding 36,000 last month.
But what started off as an effort to support hospitals and first responders soon expanded to homeless shelters, schools, nursing homes, post offices, military bases, food pantries, farmers, tribal nations, local community groups, and area prisons.
“It really took off on its own, and as people heard about us, we just started taking in more and more requests,” Poling-Hiraldo said. “It just kept evolving overtime, and every time I thought we were going to wind down, someone else came in with an order.”
With so many masks being created at one time, Poling-Hiraldo eventually created a depot outside her home for folks to pick up fabric and drop off masks. She and her kids would then bag the masks in personalized kits and fulfill the order.
The depot was also available to those wanting a mask for themselves or to make donations. Poling-Hiraldo said people often felt bad they couldn’t sew and would donate money, fabric or necessary sewing items, asserting how they wanted to help.
“We’ve gotten donations of sewing machines and fabric, so anything people could do to empower us because we were the people who could sew, they would do,” she said. “As time went on, people wanted to help and we created other jobs for them to do, like manage the depot, and we had people volunteering to drive and deliver orders for us.”
As the group continued to grow over the months, Poling-Hiraldo said they began incorporating scrub caps, headbands, buttons, and ear savers into the fold after several requests for them were made. Ear savers were made available via 3D printer or crochet, she said.
“We found some simple patterns and they all took off,” she said. “Now we’re making window masks for the hard of hearing.”
While the local group has been fortunate to help those in need, Poling-Hiraldo said it’s also given community members a feeling a purpose and friendship during a very isolated and stressful time. It makes you feel good to help people and give back in a meaningful way, she said.
Even though the group launched nine months ago, Poling-Hiraldo explained how people continually carve time out of their day to sew, crochet or help in some way.
“They’re taking time out of their day where they could be doing something else, and they’re conscientiously making the time because they want to,” Poling-Hiraldo said. “It gives them a purpose and this whole COVID thing makes everyone feel out of control and this is one of those things that gives people a sense of control.”
As coronavirus cases continue to surge statewide, Poling-Hiraldo acknowledged that many are suffering from COVID fatigue. But she pressed that as Croton Face Mask Makers continue to help the community, she takes solace knowing people are masked and safe.
“Making masks is a sign of love. If I’m putting a mask on someone else’s face, I can help slow the spread,” Poling-Hiraldo said. “There are nurses and doctors who are working long hours, so if I can make their lives a little bit more comfortable, then I’ll have done something.”