MAHOPAC, N.Y. — When the coronavirus began to really take hold last month, Erin Crowley, a Mahopac mother of four (including 22-month-old triplets), knew she had to do something to help.

Bombarded by stories on the news about the shortage of equipment—especially masks—that first responders, medical staff, essential workers and nursing homes were facing, Lee decided to put together a team of volunteers that would produce those masks and deliver them to where they were needed most.

Thus, the Mask Makers Guild was born.

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“This county is full of talented people. Two professional stitchers reviewed patterns available online, tweaked them a bit, and made prototypes,” Crowley said. “An ER doc tried them on and gave feedback. When we had a basic pattern, neighbors started sewing with whatever materials we had in our homes—quilting cotton, lengths of elastic, floral wire for nose pieces. As our production grew to meet needs, we continually modified the design based on feedback from end-users. An environmental engineer helped source medical-grade HEPA fabric to provide basic filtration in the masks. The filter fabric doesn’t replace the protective capacity of N95 masks, but it’s helping to bridge the gap until supply lines for purpose-built N95s are restored.”

Crowley said they began by focusing on first responders in Putnam County. But as demand grew, more volunteers came on board to cut, sew, quality check, sanitize, field requests, package and deliver. There are now about 800 volunteers involved in the Guild.

“We extended help to nursing homes, medical practices, and essential workers like grocery store staff, sanitation crews and postal workers,” Crowley said. “As word of our production spread, we began getting larger requests from other counties and New York City, including firehouses, the NYC Department of Corrections, children’s hospitals—we even got an order for 2,000 masks from an EMT union.

“We are giving them to the first responders and essential workers who need them,” she continued. “Sometimes their parent organizations do make donations to the Guild for materials, and for that we’re grateful.”

Crowley said that to keep production rolling, the group has had to source materials in a tight marketplace.

“That’s why we’ve set up a GoFundMe campaign to take monetary donations, large and small,” she said. “Until now, we have worked with small donations of materials, purchases from our members’ own pockets, and some money donated by community members toward supplies. Given the growing order sizes, it makes sense to bulk purchase things like elastic, galvanized steel tape (for nose pieces) and the HEPA filter fabric. That one purchase alone was almost $4,000; it was funded by an anonymous Philipstown donor.”

The goal of the GoFundMe campaign is to raise $30,000. At the time of this writing, they had nearly reached $20,000 in contributions.

Crowley said she doesn’t know how long the need for the masks will last, or if it will continue at this intensity.

“I started the [Facebook] page and it just went crazy,” Lee said. “We are now making 500 to 600 masks a day.”

She notes that the material is being cut and donated by Latham Pools, a pool company in Albany, and a sheet metal union, Local 28, has donated 17,000 custom-punched nose pieces for the masks.

“I can’t tell you how great they’ve been,” she said. “Everyone from New York City to Albany has gotten involved.”

Crowley said they gave 2,000 masks to EMTs and the FDNY in the city.

“We’ve donated to everyone,” she said, “including advocacy groups, health departments, food pantries. We started with the first responders and now essential workers. It’s just evolved and gotten crazy. We’ve given them to Westchester Medical Center and Care Mount Urgent Care.”

Mahopac’s Candy Castro, 71, has been a volunteer for the Guild for the past three weeks. She said making the masks gives her a chance to use her skills to do something important and help pass the time while under quarantine.

“I heard about it through a friend who knows that I sew,” Castro said. “It’s one of my hobbies. I learned to sew when I was in high school, so I’ve been doing it a long time.”

She said her friend sent her the Guild’s Facebook link, and she signed on.

“I don’t normally do much Facebook, but now it’s really the only way to keep tabs on friends and family,” she said. “I reached out and volunteered. [Lee] sent me a kit with masks precut with the elastic.”

Castro noted that not all the volunteers actually sew. There are plenty of other jobs.

“All these people have all different chores to do,” she said.

That includes delivering the raw materials to the sewers and then picking up the finished product, sanitizing them, boxing and bagging them, and then bringing them to the end-users.

In fact, Crowley herself doesn’t sew. But she helps sanitize the masks and package them for delivery. At one point her house got so overrun with masks and materials that she had to get a Pod storage container to hold it all. The Pod was donated by Clancy Relocation & Logistics in Patterson, which, Crowley said, has been instrumental in helping out the cause.

“They have been imperative," she said. "Very generous."

For Castro, the sewing project has provided her with a much-needed respite from the depressing stories on the evening news.

“The news got to be too much, so this came along and gave me a purpose—knowing that I am doing something to help,” she said. “I’ve been doing about 30 to 35 masks a day. I have a system. I iron them and then mark notches for the nose clips and then in the morning, I put it all together. I do most of the work in the morning. Someone comes by and picks up the finished masks and drops off materials for new ones.

“Making the masks has given me such joy and a feeling of helpfulness,” she added.

Crowley said she plans to keep the Guild up and running for as long as possible.

“We’ll keep doing it as long as there is a need,” she said.

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