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Strength and solidarity: Art faculty helps build online community of craftspeople making fabric masks in response to COVID-19 crisis

Motivated by her own struggle with chronic health conditions and a series of healthcare exchanges due to COVID-19 – including panicked flagged screening and a negative result – SUNY New Paltz Art Lecturer Rena Leinberger set out to make a difference.

She drew on her talents as a designer, artist and art administrator to create NY Masked COVID-19 Avengers, a Hudson Valley-based Facebook group with an admirable goal: To provide handmade personal protective equipment (PPE) for healthcare workers and at-risk populations.

“This project basically started out of rage and sorrow,” said Leinberger. “I don’t particularly like to sew; I am not the most experienced at it. But this situation is so dire I needed to do something.”

One day in early March, Leinberger coughed – it was asthma – but when her list of pre-existing conditions came up, she found herself in isolation room. She was then sent to a specialist in an eerily quiet medical complex. There, her immunologist told her she was making history as the last person treated as an outpatient. They would be closing the clinic to ration supplies.

“He was wearing a dust mask from a hardware store,” said Leinberger. “The stark visuals wouldn’t leave me: the sheer panic and dread in the faces at the first office. I had to do something.”

Leinberger joined fellow New Paltz lecturer Kimberly Ruth and Alison Spodek Keimowitz, associate professor of chemistry at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, to build an online network of more than 1,000 sewers from the surrounding community.

The project includes many SUNY New Paltz faculty, staff, alumni and students, as well as local businesses like Karina Dresses in Kingston, New York, where a team of professional sewers work in close partnership to meet need.

“This project offered me an opportunity to use my skills to support our health care heroes,” said Kimberly Ruth, adjunct professor of photography, digital media and journalism at the College. “Though I didn’t know it at the time, the group has offered me so much more than just a feeling of being useful—it has offered me  a feeling of responsibility that keeps not only my hands busy, but also my mind. This has been a blessing in a time where I would otherwise be in a very fearful and dark place.”

Essential staff at Vassar Brothers Medical Center were among the recipients of protective gear from the NY Masked COVID-19 Avengers

Together, the NY Masked COVID-19 Avengers have produced more than 3,600 fabric masks for healthcare workers on the front lines of the pandemic. They’ve donated their hand and machine-sewn masks to Kingston Hospital, St. Luke’s, Woodland Pond, Clover Lake Living, Northern Dutchess Hospital, Mid-Hudson Regional Hospital, Stonybrook Southampton ICU, Hudson Valley Hospice, Montefiore and Wintrop-Central Distribution New York City. They will soon be supplying Newburgh Enlarged School Districts for the employees who deliver lunches to students in the district.

Their work has had an immediate impact. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently updated their guidance to recommend cloth masks, as other protective supplies have become unavailable due to high demand.

As founder, Leinberger spends her time on administration, hospital outreach and researching fabric options. Two mask designs have been standardized for accessibility by those with a range of sewing skills and acceptance by the greatest number of healthcare facilities. One is designed to cover the N95 mask and prolong its lifespan. This research process happened quickly in consultation with hospital administrators, scientists, other designers, material specialists and health care providers who wear PPE on a daily basis.

“I’ve realized that this is not the time to think about creative production the same way I thought about it last month,” said Leinberger. “In this project, no one owns any of these ideas. They are shared organically and generously across the country. This work isn’t as much about creation as is about collaboration, adapting, resourcefulness and resilience – while under quarantine.”

Members of the SUNY New Paltz community have charitably offered their talents to similar networks including alumnae Rebecca Kassay ’10 (Contract Major: Environmental Studies) of Suffolk County Creators of COVID19 Medical Supplies and Lauren Brois ’11 (Childhood Education) with the Tri-state mask making group.

“This solidarity and care might be the greatest strength of this project,” said Leinberger. “Not the 2-ply 100 percent cotton.”