What started as a couple of friends trying to do some good during a pandemic turned into thousands of masks sewn by dozens of volunteers.
Abhilasha Gupta, Satya Badeti and Elizabeth Cheniara got together (virtually) last year to start the Plainsboro Mask Squad, a collective of local women who coordinated efforts to sew over 2,000 protective facemasks for 40 organizations across the country.
“I was just seeing on social media that doctors and other healthcare workers were in shortage of [personal protective equipment],” Gupta said. “I was feeling restless thinking about the situation.”
So she started to think about making PPE, specifically cloth masks, herself. Gupta knew how to sew, but she didn’t have her own machine—until she found out someone she knew was getting rid of one.
Gupta scooped it up and started working with her daughter to make masks in their free time.
“More and more people reached out, and I thought, ‘How could I do more?’” Gupta said.
She immediately thought of her friend, Badeti, who owns a tailoring business. As it turns out, she was also sewing her own masks.
The pair joined forces and then got together with Cheniara shortly after. She started handling fundraising and collecting donations for materials. It wasn’t long before the Plainsboro Mask Squad team reached 40 members.
“When I started, my intention was to make 100 masks and donate them because I had a lot of fabric,” Badeti said. “We thought, ‘In our township, if an organization needs masks, why not make our own?’”
Around two dozen volunteers reached out in the first 10 days, she said.
“It was very interesting how quickly everything came together,” Cheniara said. “Between business connections, friends and other contacts, the three of us just put the word out, and people were so generous. They didn’t even ask what the money would be used for. I think people just realized that this was a real crisis, and they wanted to know what they could do.”
It turns out that all of those volunteers—and donations—were vital. And even with 40 helpers, it was all hands on deck for a few months.
“We needed money for supplies, so some people were ordering on Amazon and sending to our houses,” Badeti said. “Our husbands and kids were cutting fabric. There was no dinner sometimes.”
That pace was unsustainable, Cheniara said. So they sought out a little bit of structure.
The group established roles for individuals—sewing, mailing and delivering masks, cutting fabric. All told, around 10 to 15 volunteers stitched, and the rest picked up the slack in other areas. Some even taught others how to sew.
“Many of us did not have a background in sewing,” Gupta said. “Many ladies learned and then bought or borrowed machines.”
Once everything got situated, the group was able to churn out about 100 masks a day. After that, the women had to figure out how to get the word out. They figured their best bet was creating a Facebook page, and they were right.
“Social media played a very big role in uniting people in the community,” Gupta said. “We created the page and had more and more people reaching out about helping, shipping, cutting, sewing, whatever they could do to help. It was very heartwarming.”
Even more heartwarming, Cheniara said, was the fact that a good chunk of the volunteers didn’t know each other at the start of the project.
“[Cheniara, Badeti and Gupta] knew each other, but most of the people, we didn’t know them,” she said. “We never saw them in person. We would drop off and pick up boxes at the door. There were a lot of people asking us, ‘What are you doing? Why are you taking this risk?’”
The answer to those questions was easy for Badeti.
“There are no guarantees,” Badeti said. “This could be my last day. The least I can do is a good thing.”
They did face some challenges early on, though. Supplies were limited as uncertainty about the pandemic ramped up—even specialty stores like JoAnn Fabric were running out of materials. They ended loading up on rolls of fabric and other materials, like bedsheets, at the Wal-Mart in East Windsor.
“There was some out-of-the-box thinking,” Cheniara said. “We had to get creative.”
That creativity included Gupta and Badeti recording video tutorials for novice stitchers.
“That was so helpful,” Cheniara said. “It was step-by-step instruction that we ended up sharing with the Mercer Mask Squad.”
The Plainsboro Mask Squad ended up sewing 2,200 masks and donating them to about 40 organizations across the country—hospitals, nursing homes, grocery stores, the National Guard, medical facilities, soup kitchens, local COVID-positive families, even a Navy ship. They were able to provide masks for the UMDNJ COVID lab, where Badeti’s son works.
Somewhere along the line, though, the group decided to branch out from mask making and into other community service, like donating to food pantries.
And it was a welcome change.
“When we stopped mask making, it was after six or seven weeks of continuously doing it,” Badeti said. “We were exhausted.”
Previous donors started chipping in more money and items like winter clothing and accessories. But none of the women felt comfortable holding on to that cash, Cheniara said, so they started reaching out to donors with suggestions.
They ended up donating money and goods to the Plainsboro Food Pantry, the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen and other groups.
“It almost felt like our mission expanded,” Cheniara said. “We realized we all had similar personalities of wanting to do something more.”
“It started with the masks, but it’s converting into different things,” she said. “If somebody is donating something, everybody’s cheering them on. They’re encouraging us.”
One of the group’s proudest accomplishments, though, was its work with Manavi, a domestic violence support organization that works with South Asian women.
“We realized that there is more need for survivors because of COVID,” Cheniara said. “That kind of situation can happen because people are restricted, losing jobs, losing security. Abhilasha has done a lot of the outreach in our town.”
They began by donating masks to Manavi and eventually started working with them for food donations, providing goods for domestic violence survivors in emergency situations.
Working with Manavi and other groups was just a natural progression, the women said. And they were happy to augment their services and reach.
“It was quite extensive,” Cheniara said. “There was really no distinction between the community and outside of it. It was more about the general need.”
All told, the women put in long hours for months to keep up with that demand. They created a WhatsApp group to stay in touch, share pictures of fabric and completed masks and ask sewing questions. They spent many late nights sewing, ironing and getting in touch with organizations.
It was all worth it, though. Badeti said it was satisfying to receive things like nurses posing with their new masks.
“This whole mission helped us by keeping us mentally healthy,” Gupta said. “It was important to stay busy and to keep ourselves occupied with something constructive. There was a sense of pride. It connected one person to another. It was also a great lesson to teach our younger generation—in hard times, how to come forward and help the community.”
For more information, visit the Plainsboro Mask Squad online at facebook.com/plainsboro-mask-squad.