Written By Neelakshi Iyer (Grade 11) and Ananya Goel (Grade 12)
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Bay Area chapter of Sewa International partnered with other local nonprofit organizations to provide over 9,000 hand-sewn masks to essential workers, nursing homes, homeless shelters, and others in the community. They also distributed over 60,000 medically approved masks across the Bay Area, bringing joy to all those who received them.
California was one of the hardest-hit states by the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Worldometer, a real-time statistics tracker, California had over 300,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases and over 7,000 deaths as of July 2020. To help reduce the spread of this deadly virus, Sewa International and other local nonprofit organizations, such as Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS), Annapoorna, and Bharati Tamil Sangam, initiated the Mission Mask project.
During the early stages of Mission Mask, one of the project coordinators, Pranjali Dani, sent out a WhatsApp message asking for volunteers to help sew cotton masks. Dani said that she was overwhelmed by the response.
“People’s kind words and enthusiasm encouraged me to push forward,” Dani said. “Every message on the group or phone call, every small word of motivation, was my inspiration and reason to continue.”
Mission Mask started with only 20 volunteers. As news of the project spread through word of mouth and social media apps like Facebook and NextDoor, it eventually gained close to 200 volunteers, including stitchers, donators, and coordinators. Around half of these volunteers were from Sewa International, and half were from partner organizations.
In addition to making hand-sewn masks, volunteers collected monetary donations through social media outreach. Dani estimated that volunteers raised over $1,000 for buying materials for masks. Local businesses and stores also donated materials like fabric and elastic. Entire families were involved, and in some families, even teenagers learned how to sew and helped stitch masks.
When Mission Mask first started in March, they had only 20 volunteers, and the goal was to make 3,000 masks over three months. However, as more people began to join the effort, the target increased to 5,000 and then to 7,000 masks. As of July 2020, the 150 stitchers currently have made more than 9,000 cotton masks. The efforts are ongoing, and more and more masks continue to come in every week.
The Mission Mask team donated masks to around 50 different locations across the Bay Area, including senior homes, after-school care centers, homeless shelters, police departments, fire stations, county hospitals, USPS offices, education offices, urgent cares, and nearly ten city government offices. Dani said that the recipients were pleasantly surprised and thankful to be receiving these free masks.
“These places were so thankful for the masks. Some people repeatedly asked, ‘Are you sure these are free? Are you sure we don’t have to pay?’” Dani said.
Homemade Masks: The Volunteers’ Experiences
After recruiting volunteers, project coordinators shared an instructional video showing two different designs for masks based on guidelines from Kaiser Permanente and the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC).
Making one mask took between 15 to 30 minutes, depending on the skill level of the sewer. One volunteer, Meenakshi Goel, stitched close to 600 masks with the help of her daughter. Goel said she was motivated to get involved in this effort because it was an opportunity for her to use her sewing skills to help the community. After reading news articles about the importance of masks to prevent the spread of the virus, Goel realized that being a part of Mission Mask was a great way to make a difference.
Priyanka Marepally, another volunteer, helped find places in need of masks and coordinate mask delivery. Student volunteers from a Sewa International program for high schoolers called LEAD aided Marepally in these efforts. The student volunteers called and emailed potential recipients asking if they needed homemade cotton masks. Many of these places, especially senior centers, were thrilled to hear this offer and even reached out to Mission Mask requesting more masks once they had run out.
Dani’s and Marepally’s homes served as two of the four drop-off locations for volunteers once their masks were ready to be given away. At these drop off locations, volunteers ensured masks were clean, adequately sewn, and packed correctly in clear plastic bags.
Each mask package included this disclaimer form describing the safety precautions that volunteers took while making the masks.
Challenges and Solutions
Every project comes with challenges, and the biggest one Mission Mask faced was procuring materials. When the project first started in March, many volunteers were ready to start stitching, but there was no fabric available. Some volunteers called different stores hoping to find fabric and elastic until finally, a small store on the outskirts of Sacramento responded. A couple of people from the Bay Area drove all the way to Sacramento and back (a 3-hour drive each way) to keep this effort going.
Dani explained that she had purchased fabric and elastic online in March when the state government first announced a lockdown, and Mission Mask had just begun. However, the materials were so scarce that the shipment did not arrive until June.
“There were times where volunteers were ready, but the material wasn’t,” Dani said.
Thanks to donors, volunteers eventually got enough fabric to start sewing, but there were still shortages of elastic. Some volunteers found a temporary creative substitute: string. Goel described working with the strings as a “nightmare” since it doubled the time and workload in the mask-making process.
Despite these challenges, the Mission Mask volunteers were able to move forward confidently and successfully by supporting each other. They were able to build connections with each other and their community by sewing masks together on Zoom meetings and personally delivering homemade masks to those in need.
Medically Approved Masks
In addition to homemade cotton masks, Sewa International procured and distributed over 60,000 N95, KN95, and surgical masks in the Bay Area alone. Sewa International was able to do this largely thanks to the connections that volunteers had formed with mask vendors and manufacturers through their earlier relief efforts during natural disasters like Hurricane Harvey.
The Mission Mask volunteers stepped up for these projects knowing that they would personally gain nothing but the satisfaction of helping their community. Dani, Goel, and Marepally all described the best part of this project as seeing the joy their work brought to people. Using their talents for the welfare of others, these volunteers were able to benefit everyone in the Bay Area, from seniors to first responders to city officials. The Mission Mask project helped cultivate a sense of togetherness in the Bay Area, something that society direly needs during these difficult times.
Worldometer. “California Coronavirus: 432,345 Cases and 8,208 Deaths (COVID-19 ).” Worldometer – Real Time World Statistics, 24 July 2020, www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/usa/california/. Accessed 24 July 2020.
Social Media Post
To help prevent the spread of COVID, the Bay Area Hindu community donated 9,000 handmade masks to essential workers and the elderly during the first three months of the pandemic.