Residents of the 570 Westminster Road co-op in Ditmas Park are a force to be reckoned with.
When the pandemic hit New York, Chrissie Dowler, a co-op resident for the past 14 years and the owner of a mobile tailoring business, PiedBeauty, LLC, wanted a way to help. She saw that masks and other Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) were in desperately short supply, even for frontline healthcare workers and other essential workers. A veteran of the fashion industry, Dowler had all of the skills, materials, and equipment needed to produce them herself — all she needed were a few extra sets of hands.
She posted a call to action on the building’s blog, which residents have been using to communicate both before and during the pandemic, asking people to help create masks for local community organizations and hospitals. The neighbors stepped up.
Dowler now has volunteers in eight different apartments in the building participating assembly line style. Following the instructions set out by Sew the Curve Flat, a network of volunteers sewing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for frontline workers, Dowler marks the fabric and leaves it in a bag for each volunteer along with scissors, a ruler – anything they need to complete their assigned task. Some residents prewash the fabric, some cut patterns, and some – even those with no sewing experience – do the sewing themselves.
“I gave someone a machine and just did a lesson over the phone,” Dowler said. “After doing 500 squares, he was a pro!”
Dowler washes all masks before distributing, and all volunteers wear masks and gloves while working and have themselves been self-isolating.
They use the “Deaconess/Turban Project Mask” pattern which is “designed to be [worn] over N95 Mask, potentially extending the [lifespan] of the respirator,” the website states. While the masks are supplemental, the handmade patterns add a bit of brightness to the workers’ day-to-day lives, as well: one of the nurses who requested masks for the hospital she works at felt that the ability to wear masks in pretty patterns provided a bit of cheer, Dowler said.
The majority of the masks have gone to two hospitals — the notoriously hard-hit Elmhurst Hospital Center, and St. Joseph’s University Medical Center in Paterson, New Jersey — as well as two local organizations. At an East New York nonprofit organization, United Community Center (UCC), the masks are worn by workers handling bags of food for distribution, and they outfit workers at Repair the World, a national nonprofit organization focused on Jewish life, whose Crown Heights office currently distributes food and supplies to the community. They also make masks in children’s sizes, as well as surgical caps.
Karen Alessi, Development Director for UCC, said that food distribution would have been impossible without the supply of masks they’ve received from 570 Westminster Co-op. The organization had started a food distribution program roughly two months ago to help the community during COVID-19, and, with the help of volunteers, employees, and board members, have provided bags of produce, cheese, eggs, and other food items to over 1,000 individuals. At the time they began, “there were no masks anywhere,” Alessi said. She connected with Dowler after putting out a call for help on Flatbush United Mutual Aid’s Facebook page. In all, Alessi said, she’s gotten four or five hundred masks from 570 Westminster neighbors.
“We cannot go out and do this kind of work without some kind of protection,” Alessi said. Had it not been for 570 Westminster, “I don’t know what we would have done.”
In a little over a month, 570 Westminster has produced over 1,500 masks, along with 50 surgical caps.
“It really gave me a sense of purpose,” Dowler said. “I do have other work, but nobody needs a custom-made suit right now!”
Some of the volunteers are contractors or set designers or have other jobs that have been put on hold indefinitely by the pandemic, and need a way to fill their time with something meaningful. For Sarah Blaze, one of the volunteers, making the masks felt like a safe way for her to support workers that didn’t require traveling around the city.
“It was helping a friend, helping people in need, being part of our building, and sort of being part of a group effort,” Blaze said.
On the more personal side, Blaze said doing something with her hands, especially something repetitive, feels soothing. “I just really enjoy it,” she said, laughing.