Sunday, April 19, 2020

Look for the Helpers



 "Always look for the helpers," she'd tell me. "You will always find people who
are helping." I did, and I came to see that the world is full of doctors and nurses, police and firemen, volunteers, neighbors, and friends who are ready to jump in to help when things go wrong.
-      Fred Rogers

"I should probably make masks for us," I selfishly mused a few weeks ago as my daughter and I went on what would be one of our last in-store Target runs. It seemed practical: making fabric masks would keep us as safe as possible from COVID-19. While they would not keep the virus entirely out, it would prevent us from spreading it if we coughed or sneezed in public. It would also reduce the dwindling supply of medical-grade masks needed for health professionals from being used by well-meaning citizens. The front line of this crisis was being fought in hospitals whose supplies were sorely inadequate for the potential onslaught. Home-made face coverings were one away to help solve the problem.

 The disturbing ramifications of the potentially lethal virus and alarming reports of infections and deaths were coming in daily from Italy, Spain, and other parts of Europe, as well as New York, California, and Washington State. The state of Georgia would soon have to shelter in place with only the occasional trips to the grocery store for supplies. I kept a calm face but felt terrified that my family might experience a significant health crisis during a pandemic that had no precedent in our lifetime. But I was determined to at least make us a few masks to keep us safe.

I took out my Singer Sewing machine and placed it on my work desk. This machine had been used for years for holiday projects and memory quilts to send to my brothers and sisters for Christmas. Now it took on a more profound significance. I prayed it would help me make at least a few masks for my family and neighbors. I went on-line to find a YouTube tutorial that offered a thorough how-to on making pleated surgical masks. Rummaging through my vast inventory of quilt fabric, I discovered that I had enough material to produce 100 face-coverings. There was enough elastic to make 10 complete masks and quilt strips to make bias tape straps to complete the others.  Finally, my procrastination was coming in handy. There was a Facebook group making face coverings for medical staff who were finding it impossible to order enough masks for the mushrooming demand across the country. The group asked people who could sew to help the hospitals and people who serve on the front lines combating the virus.

Suddenly, I went from frightened and powerless to activated. If you had told me a six months ago that the yards of quilt fabric mocking me in my sewing basket would become surgical masks, I would have politely inquired on the amount of crack you had been smoking. The overestimation of my quilting abilities gave me the resources needed to make a differenceThese brightly colored squares of fabric were a perfect size, and the flannel backing was what the medical community preferred for a thicker layer of added protection.

As I kept tabs on where to donate and how fast I could turn around fifty, there were more inspiring posts on the Facebook group. One included a woman whose 89-year old grandmother had made 100 masks. JOANN fabric offered free kits that you could use to make and donate to local hospitals. If you made masks and dropped them off, JOANN's would distribute them to the places that needed them most. People like me who felt helpless in the face of this epidemic had a purpose that helped them take their minds off the deeply depressing rabbit hole of COVID-19 coverage. I joined the army of Sewistas and Maskateers, ready to make up for the lack of essential equipment needed by the medical soldiers on the front line fighting against the invisible monster.

As I started to look at the news less and focus on making masks more, my mood dramatically improved. I was able to offer a service that would benefit essential workers from the security of my home. In addition to all my Zoom meetings, I found a new focus to get more masks done. After a few days, I realized that creating bias tape from quilt strips took far too long to complete. The ladies on the Facebook page were facing the same dilemma. They suggested cutting up t-shirts as a considerably faster solution to making the side ties. I ordered six white men's XL t-shirts from Target and did a curbside pick-up to be safe. It became a game-changer and helped me complete the first fifty quickly.

The hospitals seemed to be requesting the N-95 shaped masks, which is not the style I was making. I needed to find the right place to donate. The stories about senior care facilities seemed particularly heart wrenching. My
mother had lived on those types of facilities before she passed away from Parkinson's Disease in 2017. The sight of family members only able to communicate through windows was heart-wrenching to watch. Still, it gave me an idea of who might benefit from the fifty masks I had in stock. I contacted a Senior Care Center that I had donated Adopt-A-Grandparent baskets for Valentine's Day and found that they could use the masks. On the drive over, I reflected how much the world had changed since my daughter Amber and I had been there seven weeks earlier. The activities coordinator that I worked with was beyond thrilled that we brought them masks for the staff and residents who would wear them.  A week later, she requested another 40, which I was able to fill with help from other neighbors after I put a request on the app NextDoor. Two very kind ladies dropped off the items into my mailbox so we could limit our direct contact and get their supplies donated. Again, it was another example of how much people wanted to offer support, they just needed to know how to do it. 

As I kept checking the Facebook page for updates, I saw more amazing offers of help. There were folks with 3-D printers producing bias tape makers or creating plastic N-95 mask patterns and plastic straps that relieved the pressure of elastic from the masks on the ears. There were offers for food medical staff and first responders, people wanting to donate to food banks, etc. In one of my networking groups,  a print shop offered to make free copies of workbooks that teachers could safely distribute to their students who might not have access to a computer or reliable internet. The cold, cynical world of social media less felt menacing as people posted the things they were doing to help.

During a natural disaster like Hurricane Andrew, you could go to help the people affected by volunteering to clear trees, organizing food drives, helping patch roofs, etc. This national disaster asked us to stay at home and keep your distance from your neighbors. You couldn't just go, throw on a t-shirt and sneakers and help. I could sit at my sewing machine and turnout face coverings, but it lacked the human contact of asking how those affected were doing face-to-face.

In the news, there was a new reverence for the medical community,
especially the ones on the front lines treating COVID-19 patients. Essential workers like my daughter, who is a cashier at a supermarket, were also being praised. I made sure that my youngest had masks to wear at work since she was in contact with countless people during her workday. Parents began to greatly appreciate the patience of teachers as their days included lessons and cyberlearning with their children. 

My hope is that we don't forget how little gestures of kindness can mean so much. I remember standing outside my Atlanta workplace with
baby Danielle in a stroller a few days after 9/11 happened. A sudden wave of sadness washed over me. As much as I tried to keep my emotions in check, I started to sob uncontrollably. A woman exited the building and saw my despair. She didn't ask me what the problem was, she instinctively knew. She said nothing and enveloped me into her arms. I returned her embrace as my body trembled. She said softly, "It's going to be okay, honey, we'll get through this." She leaned down and told my daughter that she was the most beautiful baby she had ever seen. I never found out who she was – just an angel in human form who lifted me up when I needed it the most.

I think about that now as we try to look beyond this pandemic. I think
about how much we all want to be around each other, to embrace and tell each other everything is going to be okay.  I remember how, after Hurricane Andrew, neighborhoods pulled their meat supplies and had big block BBQs.  Without electricity or refrigeration, things like steaks, chicken, and pork ribs would spoil quickly. Sharing was the best option. There was a communal feeling of support, considering all the destruction around us. The windows were open, and you could hear children playing and laughing and adjusting to this new normal. You saw celebrities in Miami like Harry Casey lead singer of KC and the Sunshine Band directing traffic because he saw the need and filled it. 

You checked on your elderly neighbors to see how they were fairing without AC during those sultry August days in Miami. You put down buckets to catch the water because even months after the hurricane, your roof still leaked and it would impossible to find a contractor to fix it.  But you were grateful that you had a roof. Then as time passed and things got back to normal, the windows closed as the air conditioners generated internal cool breezes. The neighbor that you had some profound conversations with was now someone you smiled and waved at. Sadly, you didn't communicate as much anymore because you had all the comforts of home. Your cable TV and a cold beer beaconed. 

This pandemic does not allow us to be as physically close, but offering a kind word over the phone, social media, or facetime can still provide emotional support. Providing food and encouragement to healthcare or essential workers can do wonders for your psyche as well as making masks for friends, family, and people you will never meet. JOANN Fabrics put forward the goal of 100,000,000 masks, and at this point, the army of Maskateers has completed 71,000,000. In the spirit of Rosie the Riveter – we are being asked if we can do it and we are answering with a resounding YES, WE CAN!

Now when I feel overwhelmed by the pandemic, I look for the helpers. They are all around us – they are us. For my money, that is what really makes America great.


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