In better times, the Schenectady-based non-profit The MoonCatcher Project organizes MoonBees - sewing bees where people get together and make reusable menstrual pads to distribute to girls around the world.
Those MoonBees have been canceled, a casualty of COVID-19’s rapid spread through the U.S.
But that doesn’t mean the group’s volunteers aren’t busy at work.
They’ve found new purpose in the midst of a global pandemic.
They’re making cloth face masks for local health care providers, with the goal of helping them cope with what front-line medical workers say is a dangerous shortage of personal protective equipment.
“This is a great project that we can do at home by ourselves,” Ginger Ertz, a Niskayuna resident who serves on The MoonCatcher Project’s board, told me.
The urgency of the moment and simplicity of the mask design - “They’re pretty easy to make,” Ertz said - might explain why so many people have responded to the call for handmade masks.
The effort isn’t limited to The MoonCatcher Project.
All over America, crafty people have responded to the call for aid by dusting off their sewing machines and getting to work.
“We’re all stuck at home and this is something I can do,” said Jen Chillrud, a Saratoga Springs resident who, along with five or six of her colleagues at the Saratoga Springs Public Library, is making masks. “This is a good use of time and material.”
The volunteers aren’t flying blind.
The MoonCatcher Project is using a pattern, posted online by the Indiana-based Deaconess Health System, that is compliant with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention standards. Last week the CDC posted guidance that said front-line healthcare workers could use homemade masks as “a last resort.”
Others have stepped up by donating medical masks to local health care organizations.
Habitat for Humanity of Schenectady County gave Ellis Medicine over 1,000 N95 masks respirator masks, which are in high demand but critically low supply in many parts of the country. Some doctors in New York City have reported reusing their masks, which are only supposed to be used one.
Masks are crucial for health care workers because coronavirus is spread through respiratory droplets when a person coughs or sneezes.
Volunteers don’t have to be able to sew to contribute to the mask-making effort.
Ellie von Wellsheim, the Schenectady resident who founded The MoonCatcher Project, said that volunteers are also needed to cut fabric, as each mask requires two matching rectangles.
“If you can cut, let us know, if you can sew, let us know,” she said. “I have over 100 volunteers already who are working on masks. … It’s been extraordinary. The response has been way more than I thought it would be.”
The MoonCatcher Project’s is well-stocked with cotton fabric, which the group typically uses to make drawstring bags for menstrual supplies. If volunteers need materials, members can deliver them.
Von Wellsheim travels to Africa regularly to deliver supplies and teach menstrual management classes. Girls who can’t afford menstrual pads often skip school during their period, and the reusable pads help them stay in school.
Earlier this month, von Wellsheim cut short a trip to Uganda and Kenya when the Trump administration announced coronavirus-related travel restrictions, and it’s unclear when she’ll return. The restrictions and tightened border controls in many countries “shuts down the MoonCatcher Project for now,” she said.
That’s too bad - but it’s nice to see that the group has a new mission, and that so many people want to help.
Philip Schwartz, a spokesman for Ellis Medicine, told me that the hospital’s supply of masks is “adequate at this time,” and said that Ellis had received “many donations over the past few days.”
“Only certain materials are known to provide safe barriers from COVID-19 for health care providers," St. Peter's said in a statement. "We have no way of verifying if homemade products meet these standards.”
The face masks made by volunteers might not end up in a local hospital, but that doesn’t mean they won’t find a good home. Other groups and organizations are in need of masks; one volunteer told me that a local homeless shelter had expressed interest in obtaining some.
With any luck, production of face masks will ramp up soon, and we won’t need volunteers armed with sewing machines and scissors to produce them. One company, Minnesota-based 3M, has already doubled its global production of N95 masks to nearly 100 million a month.
Though if there’s a question we ought to consider in the weeks and months to come, it’s why the wealthiest country on earth is struggling to obtain critical gear for the men and women tasked with caring for those who fall ill from a nasty new virus.
In the meantime, the volunteers are putting their talents to excellent use.
“People are amazing,” von Wellsheim said. “The way people step up to the plate and help is so heartening.”