In these unprecedented times, contributing to the welfare and health of others gives us hope for the future. That’s what New Jersey Sews in Unity is all about. The Facebook group consists of volunteers who have been reaching out to Garden State neighbors with much needed personal protective equipment sewn by people in their homes. While the majority of the contributions have been cloth masks, members have also made caps and gowns for medical professionals.
Woman Around Town had the pleasure of interviewing one of the administrators of New Jersey Sews in Unity, Shannon Coulter. She gave us insights into how the group operates and who has benefited from their extraordinary efforts.
Tell us about the inspiration for New Jersey Sews in Unity and how it all started.
Way back in March, Phyllis Binder posted an article in a few groups about how PPEs were short across the country and people were sewing masks for medical workers. She asked if this was something local people might be interested in doing. DivineMissjay (who doesn’t use her real name online) started a message thread with everyone local she could think of who might be interested and started organizing. She spoke to one of our medical professional members, Dr. Pamela Brug, to confirm that homemade masks would be useful. After that, Marci Kleinberg-Bandelli and Margaret Illis, both local organizers, started a private group on Facebook to gather everyone together. I then joined in to help organize.
What has been the main mission of the group?
We’re here to get masks to anyone who needs them and can’t get their own. At first we mainly helped medical professionals, but since things have gotten a bit better in New Jersey, we’re now mostly donating to vulnerable populations through non-profit organizations.
How is New Jersey Sews in Unity organized weekly?
Volunteers sew on their own at home. We have a few different local “depots” where they can pick up or drop off donated supplies from front porches with no contact. We ask that people drop off their finished masks (and other items) every Friday at one of our depots. Saturday the masks get counted up and then the rest of the weekend is organizing which masks go where and contacting the recipients (or their delivery volunteers) to come pick up.
What are some of the people and organizations that have received the PPE that the group makes and how have they connected with you?
We’ve donated to a lot of organizations and medical centers – too many to list! Right now we have regular donations to two groups. New Jersey Black Women Physicians Association, which does vulnerable population outreach in North Jersey and migrant worker outreach in South Jersey (https://www.facebook.com/NJBWPA – Dr. Pamela Brug, mentioned above, is their vice president and one of our members), and Archangel Raphael Mission ( https://www.facebook.com/armgives ), which does homeless and vulnerable population outreach in New Brunswick.
We’ve also done quite a lot of one time donations to places like food banks, soup kitchens, immigrant organizations like One World, One Love (https://www.facebook.com/OneWorldOneLoveNJ), the local International Rescue Committee, medical facilities and hospitals such as Trinitas and Newark Beth Israel, a local VA hospital, and more.
Donations have been through word of mouth. We have a few members who are medical professionals so they reached out to other doctors and nurses who needed help. Peggy Rothbaum, Ph.D, is a psychologist who used her contacts to find other medical professionals who needed masks and then did an incredible amount of work delivering donations to colleagues in the area. Pamela Brug, practicing OBGYN and vice president of the New Jersey Black Women Physician Association, has been accepting regular donations from our group for their outreach, but also helped arrange donations to hospitals and doctors back when they couldn’t get enough for their own use. We also have some nurses in our group like Karen Lukacovic who helped facilitate donations, and helped us when we had questions about things like scrub caps and ear extenders.
Now that we’re mostly doing non-profits, a lot of our members contact organizations they were already supporting to see if they could use masks. And then, we were featured by Governor Murphy of New Jersey in one of his Covid updates (photo above). We got more members and more requests after that.
How many members do you currently have in New Jersey Sews in Unity and where are they from in the Garden State?
We currently have 478 members. This of course does not mean we have 478 sewers! Many sew, but some help by donating materials, or cutting fabric (and returning it to the depot ready to sew). Some join just to ask for masks.
The group was mainly started by people in Union County so that’s where three of our depots are, but we also have a depot and sewers out in Branchburg (Somerset County) and various volunteers in other parts of New Jersey.
Can you share some information about some of your volunteers and their contributions?
Many of our members are from Union County in New Jersey. We have a few men involved but the vast majority of our members are women. Some are life long sewers, but we also have some who learned how to sew just for this project. All of them just wanted to do something to help. Quarantine hit and we couldn’t go out and the news kept showing us how bad things were in the hospitals, so this gave a lot of people an outlet for their anxiety and a way to help at the same time.
To date, how many masks have been donated by New Jersey Sews in Unity?
The total is updated every Saturday. As of 7/11, we’ve donated 17,585 masks. We’ve also donated gowns, ear extenders (medical wearers use these with their masks to take pressure off their ears) and scrub caps, but our main purpose is masks since that is what is most important to slowing the spread of Covid-19.
What do you see as the future of New Jersey Sews in Unity?
As long as we have people willing to sew and people who need masks, we’ll keep going.
Anything else, absolutely anything that you wish to share with Woman Around Town readers.
Just that it’s really helped a lot – both the people we’ve donated to, and ourselves. When other groups in the area started slowing down (because the medical field was catching up with PPE), I had multiple people send me worried messages asking if we were going to stop too, because they really wanted to keep going. Volunteering is not just good for the people who are being helped, it’s good for the people doing the helping. And right now, when so many of us feel anxiety about this pandemic, being able to do something concrete like deliver a mask to someone who doesn’t have one, really makes you feel just a little bit less helpless.
New Jersey Sews in Unity is a private Facebook group. To find out more about it, you can visit https://www.facebook.com/groups/504918570394547.
Top photo: Bigstock