When the coronavirus pandemic escalated in late March, frontline facilities like hospitals, nursing homes, schools, and grocery stores across the nation began to experience shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE)—masks especially. When Sew Masks 4 Cincy founder Esther Kang heard that bandanas were being recommended by the CDC as a last resort, she called a friend who works as a nurse at University of Cincinnati Medical Center.
“I said, I can get a couple people to get together to sew some masks; what do you think?” Kang says in a video on SM4C’s Facebook group. “And she said, It would be amazing.”
The operation rapidly grew much bigger than just a couple people making masks. Just 24 hours after Kang created the group’s Facebook page at noon on March 20, the group reached 1,200 members. On day two, Kang was interviewed by Local 12 about her operation, and the following day, the Facebook group reached more than 6,000 members. “I was very very honored,” Kang says. “It’s been an incredible journey.”
In just over two months, SM4C has collectively donated more than 20,000 masks to frontline facilities in the Cincinnati area. Members of the Facebook group can apply to receive free sewing kits, which include fabric and elastic straps. The sewists are asked to return their completed masks within two weeks to a donation drop-off center, which can be found at four Cincinnati-area Crossroads Church locations.
The group also provides free sewing patterns on its website so anyone can learn how to make their own mask. Allison McKenzie, SM4C’s director of sewing, developed the patterns after joining the group on Facebook. Like Kang, McKenzie was appalled by the shortage of PPE that healthcare workers saw in the early weeks of the pandemic.
“It was kinda crazy to me that we were in that position,” McKenzie says. “That we were actually in that position where we needed people to make masks out of fabric.” A lifelong sewist, McKenzie knew she could put her talents to use and contacted Kang to see how she could help.
Along with creating sewing patterns, McKenzie frequently replies to sewing questions on the group’s Facebook page and sews many of the masks for the group herself (she estimates that she’s made more than 400 at this point). She says that she’s stayed with the group for so long because of the severity of the need for PPE that COVID-19 has created. “Although I’ve been involved in other nonprofits in the past, this one seemed like a situation where it really needed to be all hands on deck,” she says.
While nobody can say for certain when the pandemic will end, the team at SM4C continues to respond to demands for masks from all parts of the Cincinnati community, most notably kids. “There was a huge need for children’s masks,” Kang says. Because of this, SM4C has decided to donate all masks created using their kits for the month of June to frontline organizations and schools that will give the masks to children from low-income families. Furthermore, masks from kits donated in July and August will be donated to teachers and staff at local school districts.