This is the story about how theater kids, a parent group, the NJEA members at Bergen County Academies (BCA), and a community switched gears overnight from sewing costumes to making over 20,000 masks, with more than 400 hundred volunteers, for more than 70 frontline organizations. And they are still sewing.

A super-brain forms

This is also the story of how we became something of a “super-brain”: people in long-term relationships—whether romantic, friendly or professional—who subconsciously form a macro-organism together. Their brains work together to determine each other’s strengths and assign tasks accordingly to become a more efficient and tightly bonded functioning unit, creating that “super-brain.”

The last weekend in February, our production of “Legally Blonde” opened and closed to record-breaking audiences. You know how that goes—months of tireless work by staff, students and parents, all culminating in the most joyful of human experiences known as the high-school musical!

At Bergen County Academies, we have a very special parent group, Parents and Patrons of the Arts (PAPA), ably led by its co-presidents, Clori Caminiti Osso and Vicky Green.

Clori, Vicky and two of our longtime costume designers, Janet Hughes and Christine Beidel, and I had been striking costumes and putting the final pieces in our stock when the world began to learn of COVID-19. 

We’d been working together, along with tens of parents, colleagues and hundreds of kids, as a well-oiled machine for years. We all know how theater works; from the smallest productions to Broadway, it’s a complex management structure with a strict hierarchy that enables it to be fiscally tight and highly productive—we make amazing stuff from very little.

We understand how to get something up and running very quickly and how to be nimble and responsive when the theater suddenly burns down, and you move your entire production to the parking lot—not unlike like what was happening to the world.

We have ancient structures and roles in place that understand their position in order to serve the whole, the production, the thing that is larger than the sum of its parts with the reward rarely being financial. The reward is emotional, intellectual, creative and very human. Those were the ingredients needed to create a highly productive, entirely new organization with a relatively sophisticated management structure, overnight.

The mask project begins with a Facebook post

On March 19, Clori tagged us on a post about a group of midwestern hospital administrators gently teaching local families to sew surgical masks. This unlikely little video, now with over 2 million views, went viral. Around the country, people pulled out their sewing machines and started sewing. Soon, the site posted an update politely asking people to STOP sending masks; they had enough!

But out here in the tri-state area, where nurses were wearing garbage bags and ICU doctors were cooking their only N95 mask in the oven at night to sterilize after a 14-hour shift, things were just heating up. 

It took only a few days for us all to turn our homes into production facilities for what together they would become in less than a month: a small community-wide factory with over 400 volunteers, creating more than 20,000 masks and headbands, distributing them to well over 70 hospitals, police forces, fire departments, retirement homes, rehabilitations centers, transit workers, grocery stores, pediatric oncology units, convents, and many other frontline and essential workers. For those of us teaching, we had two shops to manage: a virtual classroom and a sewing factory.

We work from 5:30 in the morning until we collapse onto couches, sending the last texts and final posts at 11 p.m. We hold Zoom meetings each week to clarify our mission and stay true to our goal: creating a washable, reusable mask to go over an N95 mask to prolongs its life and add an extra layer of protection to the wearer. Now, that goal has expanded to include creating a washable, reusable mask with three layers of cotton to be worn by essential and front-line workers who do not have an N95 mask.

In the beginning, horrific messages would come from medical workers begging for masks. We set up a website and reached out to a BCA dad who sells fabrics wholesale, asking him to donate thousands of 1-yard lengths of quilting fabric. We scrounged up wire from our basements for the nose-pieces and dug elastic out of our stock at school. My dear principal allowed me to return to our empty building over and over again to retrieve supplies.

We began to produce thousands of masks. Volunteers came out of the woodwork in the tens at first and then the hundreds. My front porch became the hub of the system as demand grew alongside production needs.

Critical feedback improves the masks

The first feedback came from Lilliana, a nurse at Holy Name Medical Center in Teaneck. We were tagged on her social media post, and suddenly we had a very specific connection. It was the first of many photos of front-line workers wearing the masks, and more importantly, providing critical commentary, enabling us to refine our product.

Did they like the wire? Yes. How was the elastic fit? Too tight. Can you breathe through the fabric? Yes. This feedback continued as we learned what worked and what didn’t. 

We reached out to scientists holding doctorates in our department at BCA to try to make sense of the virus particles and how they might move through the mask. People were sending peer-reviewed studies, but as we well know, the information was changing by the minute. All we could do was try to make a great product, guiding hundreds of strangers by way of social media, to adjust to daily changes and needs. 

When we learned the elastics were causing horrible pain behind the nurses’ ears, we moved quickly to research solutions to create products that could pull the elastic off the back of the ear. We found a Canadian Boy Scout who had created a 3-D printed elastic extender, which had gone viral. Local students, who’d heard about our task force, started printing and sending the plastic extenders to us in small batches. When the Bergen Makerspace program at BCA learned of our project, we were able to supply hundreds of these little plastic miracles along with our masks and headbands.

And all along, people are sewing, donating, driving and doing laundry. We have one man who created a logo and another woman took over the website, which has been instrumental to our overall production.

A village production company

Our near daily routine consists of three women who launder the material before it is sewn. They also check every single mask for product quality. A small fleet of drivers responds instantly to hourly calls for pick-up and delivery. Students help with social media. Still other volunteers dig out old sewing machines long tucked away in closets. They loan to them Broadway costume designers and wardrobe mistresses who couldn’t get their beloved sewing machines out of the theaters they’d so abruptly left.

Family members clear off dining room tables to make space for miniature assembly lines, learning to pin fabric and bend wires. The funding from our NJEA PRIDE in Public Education grant helps us buy supplies and keeps us going. Donors give to our Go Fund Me campaign and search websites for hours trying to find the one company in the world that can get us the right elastic before we run out again. It truly is a village production company.

Those are the people we want to thank. Of course, we want, like everyone in the entire world, to thank our intrepid, exhausted, sick and dying, terrified front-line workers. But if we bring this a step closer to home, we want to thank our volunteers and donors. So many of whom we do not know and may never meet. All day long, as we rush about juggling the countless tasks that comprise co-running a “pop-up” industry as I bump into our new “friends” on my porch.

In a time of social isolation, we have made hundreds of new friends. We talk all day long through posts, messages, texts, tweets and emails, exchanging horror stories, crying over the newly dead, laughing over sewing memes, sending pictures of the mandatory cocktails needed to get through evening hours and, best of all, the latest pictures of our heroes wearing masks.

For more information about how to volunteer with Bergen Mask Task Force, please visit https://www.facebook.com/bergenmasktaskforce. They are always in need of more sewing teams. 

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