Local business making face masks for those overlooked during COVID-19

West-end shop organizing making of masks for frontline workers and vulnerable people during coronavirus outbreak

Homemade reusable face masks.
Some of the reusable face masks made by The Wanderly's volunteers for frontline workers and vulnerable people.  Photo courtesy of The Wanderly/Toronto Observer

The fist few days after shutting down her small business due to the novel coronavirus were hard for Katie Nicholson, co-owner of The Wanderly store. But then she decided to channel that energy into doing something good, organizing homemade face masks for vulnerable people and frontline workers in need.

Soon after the doors closed at The Wanderly, Nicholson was visiting her elderly mother who is disabled, as well as immunocompromised. She was surprised to find her mother’s personal support worker (PSW) was not wearing a face mask.

When Nicholson asked the PSW why she didn’t have a mask, the PSW told her the organization she worked for didn’t have very many masks to give out. The ones they did have were being rationed and thety were told to wear them only if their patients were showing symptoms themselves of the virus.

That’s when inspiration struck. 

Nicholson realized her business had access to a seamstress they worked with regularly to alter and repair vintage clothing that they sold at the store.

They sourced some cotton and elastic from a Toronto textile shop and found a sewing pattern for masks from another small business in Los Angeles — and they got to work. 

“We made a considerable donation of our own to just get the ball rolling and then we opened it up to the public,” said Nicholoson. “We thought why don’t we just open up a fundraiser through the shop and use our exposure and presence in the community to see if people want to help with this.”

Now through their website, supporters can donate $4 that will provide enough supplies for two masks.

Physicians across the country have reported a “much starker picture of the state of supply at the frontlines than what some of our political leaders have been sharing,” according to a news release by The Canadian Medical Association on April 2.

Among the 5,000 physicians they surveyed, over a third in community care said they would run out of crucial PPE within two days or less. More than two thirds said they had tried to order more supplies but less than 15 per cent received confirmation that their orders are coming in. In addition, doctors in hospitals reported that they didn’t know the endurance of their supplies but still many of them were being instructed to ration the supplies. 

Currently doctors and nurses are not accepting homemade masks like Nicholson’s because they aren’t medical grade, but those aren’t the only frontline workers who need protective equipment. They include personal support workers, caretakers, homeless shelters, long-term care facilities and retirement homes. 

Tara Forletta, 23, is one of these essential workers that need personal protective equipment (PPE) as well. She’s a dining room server at a retirement community in Pickering. Prior to the pandemic reaching a public health crisis, her job description was essentially the same as any other restaurant server: providing table-side service to community members for each meal. 

But as COVID-19 progressed, her job description changed.

“It was very unsettling,” Forletta said. “The whole month of March felt like every time you walked into work something was different, some new protocol, some new thing we were doing.” 

Now she and the other servers are working on average 13 hour days and serving three meals a day to each of the approximate 130 resident’s rooms, which Forletta called “the worst-case scenario.”

All of a sudden Forletta became a frontline and essential worker serving an arguably the most vulnerable population to the virus and they didn’t have PPE, like many others who don’t work within medical centres.

“There’s a lot more essential workers than you think,” says Forletta. 

The Wanderly’s fundraiser has found the same. So far with more than $900 raised and 15 sewers volunteering their time they have been able to donate 500 masks to the two largest Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) shelters for women and children fleeing domestic violence as well as 175 masks to the men’s shelter Good Shepherd in Toronto’s east end.

Nicholson said workers at the shelters were desperate to get some masks saying they were unable to get any medical grade ones. But with the people in the shelters sleeping in close quarters as well as being a vulnerable population, PPE for those staying there, as well as staff, is a necessity. 

The small business is now working on fulfilling an order for 2,500 masks requested by a physician at Michael Garron hospital. Even though medical staff are not taking homemade masks, the physician is planning on giving the masks to 1,000 outpatients that are immunocompromised, elderly or fragile, as well as to their caretakers. 

Nicholoson said once that order is fulfilled they will likely move on to donating other hospitals, as well as the organization that her mother’s PSWs work for, saying, “There’s definitely still a demand.”

The Wanderly’s efforts are a testament to Toronto’s sense of community. 

“It’s been a huge effort on everyone’s part,” Nicholson said. “Especially it’s all local, self-employed, small businesses and artists that are certainly part of the community that have been hit pretty hard by the economic fallout of all of this.”

And yet, Nicholson said, her front walk-way has been a “revolving door of masks.” Every day a new bag of masks are delivered by neighbours and strangers alike all pitching in to help, while receiving zero profits. 

“In such an out of control situation it gives you a little sense of feeling grounded and feeling in control when you’re doing something to help,” Nicholson said. 

About this article

Posted: Apr 16 2020 11:51 pm
Filed under: Community COVID-19 News