Neighborhood Networks Work to Save Lives

By Dr. Beth Robelia | September 25, 2020

I did not mean to start a network of volunteers and make more than 2000 masks in 2 months. It just happened. A need arose and I saw a chance to give back. In my youth I was a seamstress and a cutter. In Baltimore I worked for a small company sewing polar fleece hats. In Maine I cut piecework by hand for a small dressmaking company called Posies. I know how to turn out garments efficiently and I know how to sew. When a local network of hospitals put out a call for masks, I thought I would get a few neighbors to help. I thought maybe we could make a few dozen masks. I would be doing my part and using my talent.  I posted on Nextdoor, a neighborhood social media app, asking for help. I was unprepared for the response.

My message inbox lit up. Many people wanted to help. People saw our progress and then even more people wanted to help. When one network of hospitals had enough masks we started donating to another. We ran out of fabric. I posted on Nextdoor and bags of sheets arrived. Cutters volunteered. We ran out of elastic. Networks of neighbors helped me find more or donated. I organized at 50 person network. Fabric came in and went out to be cut. One person just cut elastic, almost 1000 yards total. Thread arrived in the mail from someone who could not sew, but wanted to help. Cut pieces came in, I bundled fabric and elastic into kits of 10-20 masks and put in bins on my front steps for contactless pickup. People came to pick up materials in snow and rain. I was truly humbled by the response.

Anytime I needed help or materials, people stepped up. The neighborhood cheered us on as I posted photos of almost every finished mask. When nurses needed headbands to save their ears, we made those too. One person sewed on over 400 buttons. We kept it up through April and most of May until masks were commercially available.

We suppled masks to eight hospitals, one nursing home, a school district, and almost every fire fighter in St. Paul. I worked 20-40 hours a week to keep the mask machine going, sourcing elastic, delivering masks, getting materials to the right people, contacting volunteers. It was exhausting on top of a full time job as a high school teacher, but I knew that we were saving lives. I learned that I can organize and lead in a time of need. My background as an Outward Bound Instructor came in handy as I understand logistics and morale. We as a neighborhood group are grateful to all the nurses and doctors who were risking their lives. I was amazed by how quickly people came together to do what needed to be done and I am truly grateful to all my neighbors who helped.

Dr. Beth Robelia is a contributing faculty member at Walden in Riley College of Education and Leadership. She lives in St. Paul, MN. She also works full time at an online high school teaching biology. In previous lives she has been a deckhand and a seamstress.

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