BRIDGEWATER, NJ - Out of anxiety and fear over keeping her family safe was born a way to help those in need during scary times.
Bridgewater resident Jennifer Loughran has had her share of tragedy over the years, and when the coronavirus pandemic hit close to home, she found herself wondering how she was going to protect her family, and what she could possibly do.
“Meanwhile, my husband started cleaning out the crap room,” she said. “It was actually annoying me because in my mind, I thought there were more important things to do. One day, he calls me in and says, ‘You have really great fabric,’ and I was like, yeah, I do, but it’s so small, I can’t really make anything but quilts and baby dresses.”
Three hours later, the idea came to her.
“Then I posted in a group chat that I was going full-blown crazy, and I was going to start sewing face masks,” she said. “I called them Foxy Faces, inspired by a nickname I have for my son, Finny the Fox.”
Loughran said she started sewing and giving them all away, mostly to nurses and doctors who reached out to her.
“I was reaching out on a Facebook board to find fabric and sewing needles because delivery times on non-essential items were slowing down,” she said. “Several people in the group started chatting about how they were making masks, wanting to make masks, knowing people making masks, talking about who needs masks, and then one person said, ‘You really should just start a separate group for this conversation.’”
“At first, I thought it was a snarky social media comment, but then I realized it was a really good idea,” she added. “So we started the Somerset County Mask Squad.”
Loughran has dealt with her own personal tragedies over the last seven years that made this outbreak in New Jersey especially problematic for her and her family.
In 2013, she lost her daughter, Sylvia, for undetermined reasons. Loughran said she was 14 months old and had low tone and special needs, but she was never diagnosed.
Five months later, Loughran lost her mother, and then her grandmother two months after that, followed two weeks later by her dog.
“If I hadn’t been pregnant with my daughter, Serafina, while all of this happened, I would have given up will to live,” she said. “The pain was beyond anything you can imagine. I had night terrors, flashes, panic attacks. I thought this was grief. But when I finally got into therapy, I discovered that I was dealing with PTSD.”
Loughran said she started sewing as a way to cope, and focusing on something productive shaved off the anxiety a little bit at a time.
“I ended up starting a nice little business for myself as an embroidery designer on Etsy, called Artisanal Threadworks,” she said.
When her daughter, Eilish, was born, she found it was too hard to keep up with the sewing.
Then, Loughran said, she gave birth to her son, Fin.
“When he was born, I was so happy,” she said. “I had no symptoms of PTSD. No PPD (post-partum depression). No anxiety. I was over the moon.”
In December, Loughran said, Fin got sick with RSV, and a nurse friend mentioned that his tone seemed low.
“The PTSD came back full blown,” she said. “I blamed every cup of coffee I had while I was pregnant, every forgotten prenatal, the sip of wine I had at Thanksgiving. The only thing that kept me borderline sane was the gym and the community of women I became friendly with there.”
After doctor visits and tests, Loughran said she and her husband found themselves sitting before a doctor, three days before the world went on lockdown, to hear that her son has infantile Tay Sachs, a very rare degenerative genetic disease that takes everything away a little at a time.
“There is no cure, no approved treatment,” she said. “No child has ever survived it past 5 years old. There is no hope.”
At the same time, Loughran said, life was changing rapidly as schools and businesses shut down and more cases of coronavirus were recorded at a fast rate.
“People started to have that look, that day terror look that comes from not having any control over what is happening,” she said. “I know that feeling. Not having any control is the hardest part, really.”
Loughran said boredom and the stress of not being able to find enough distractions is part of the problem.
“That is what the mask project gives people,” she said, “a little bit of control in a world of uncertainty. Instead of being idle, we can use this time to make something that gives other people in the community a little feeling of relief. In times like this, that is everything.”
Loughran said she is sewing the masks based off a pattern the Centers for Disease Control shared. A doctor in Taiwan posted a video about making masks with a pocket for a filter, and that is where she got the idea from.
She created a prototype with an envelope pocket back, similar to the one that was shared.
Loughran said she began posting the work she was doing on her personal Facebook page, and people started asking how they could help.
“Some friends offered to raise money to cover the cost of supplies,” she said. “My daughter’s preschool teachers offered to cut my fabric.”
Later that night, Loughran said, the teacher sent her a picture of the mask she had made.
“Since then, she has sewn over 50 masks in two days, and donated all of them,” she said. “Plus, we’ve had four phone calls where we were chatting while we were parallel sewing on our machines.”
Loughran said her friend, Stacey, created the Facebook group for “Somerset NJ Mask Squad,” and invited anyone who was interested in participating in any way. At this point, they have 119 members, with some volunteering time and skills, and sewers sharing photos of their work.
Another member picks up masks and delivers them.
“There are several people who wanted to sew, but lost their income and couldn’t afford to buy the materials, so my husband, Michael, dropped off starter kits with fabric and elastic,” she said. “Since I started about two days before mask-making became a ‘thing,’ I had ordered a large quantity of elastic, now there is a shortage out there, and so I share my materials with anybody that needs it.”
Loughran said they have a GoFundMe fundraising goal to raise funds to kickstart the distribution of 100,000 masks.
“We plan to do this by drawing from the skills, contributions, relationships and participation of the members of the community, tapping into the knowledge of others all over the world who are trying to do the same,” she said.
Loughran said the masks don’t replace the ones the doctors and nurses need, but they can be used to cover their n95 masks, to make them last longer.
“A lot of people responded with urgency to the needs of the medical community,” she said. “But also, there are other people in the community who I feel are being overlooked. Maybe they are bagging your groceries, highly exposed. Maybe they work in your house because your plumbing is leaking.”
“Maybe they live on their own and have to shop and are afraid to leave the house,” she added. “Maybe they just had a baby, and they are scared every time they go to the store, they are at risk. Maybe their child is medically fragile. Maybe their parents are.”
Loughran said it is not the same level of protection of an n95, but it is a start.
The goal, Loughran said, is to distribute 100,000 masks to the people of Somerset County.
“Anybody who wants one, we want to get them one,” she said. “It’s a little crazy, probably. But the more stories I read from those sewing, the more faith I have in the people of Somerset County to come together in a big way to achieve a big goal.”
Visit the Facebook group at https://www.facebook.com/groups/1436788243168876 to get involved.
Visit https://bit.ly/3btS577 to find out how to donate.