Immigrant mask makers provide pandemic PPE

  • The im2: Immigrant Mask Makers of Western Massachusetts team. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • An assortment of masks made by the im2: Immigrant Mask Makers of Western Massachusetts team. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • A seamstress with im2: Immigrant Mask Makers of Western Massachusetts works at a sewing machine. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 2/21/2021 7:09:31 PM

NORTHAMPTON — When the COVID-19 pandemic struck the U.S. last March, lockdowns left many without jobs, while public safety measures created a scramble for face masks to protect against virus transmission.

A Northampton group, im2: Immigrant Mask Makers of Western Massachusetts, soon after went to work creating masks — and jobs — during the crisis. Today, the team, consisting of 16 immigrant women and co-founders Amy Ben-Ezra and Allie Aguirre, have sewn and coordinated the creation of hundreds of masks.

In addition to providing an income source and masks, the co-founders also wanted to focus on a sustainable means of production, according to Ben-Ezra.

“Our focus has been providing some kind of sustainable income for the sewers,” Ben-Ezra said, “doing it in a way that is really safe for them … and that is sustainable for the environment.”

The people who sew the masks, who live throughout western Massachusetts, all work from home to comply with social distancing, and focus on reusing materials, such as donated fabrics and out-of-use sewing machines, to achieve these goals.

One seamstress, Paulina, joined im2 within the first few months of lockdown, when many were still struggling to adjust to pandemic measures.

The group first began talking “at some point when COVID was really bad,” she recalled. “It was the lockdown, and I wasn’t working.

“There was a lot of need for masks,” she added, “and I was also trying to help myself.”

Paulina had some sewing experience prior to joining im2, but mostly just for minor fixes, such as hemming clothing for herself or her son. Working with im2, she learned how to make high-quality face masks while learning more about sewing in general.

“It’s been a fun experience getting to know something else,” she said, “and helping myself and helping others at the same time.”

Another seamstress, Rosa, said she had experience sewing in her home country and appreciated the opportunity to help others protect themselves by making masks.

“At the time, many of the stores had run out of masks,” she said. “We were trying to help make the masks because they were really needed.

“We started doing that to protect people,” Rosa added. “That was really important.”

In addition to feeling meaningful, the work also provided a distraction from much of the stressful news at the time, Rosa said, and she has enjoyed meeting people from various countries who have come together to work on the project.

Ben-Ezra and Aguirre knew from the beginning that they wanted to provide the sewers with a stipend that worked out to at least $15 per hour, Ben-Ezra said. The co-founders were not immediately able to provide this stipend due to their lack of funding, she noted, but have since been able to compensate for work completed from the beginning while continuing to pay stipends.

The co-founders knew each other through their work at Northampton’s International Language Institute of Massachusetts, where they often work with students who are immigrants. When the pandemic struck, they were particularly worried about students who were not eligible for stimulus money or other government benefits.

“We just couldn’t imagine how they were going to manage,” Ben-Ezra said. Aguirre heard about a similar group in the Berkshires, and the two co-founders reached out to their local Listserv for help getting the idea off the ground in the Valley.

In response, neighbors offered to donate fabrics, sewing machines, elastics and other materials needed for mask making. Some donations were from individuals, while others came from organizations such as Stavros in Amherst, which provides advocacy for people with disabilities, and Dean’s Beans Organic Coffee Co. in Orange, which donated metal pieces used to make the masks adjustable over the nose. Additionally, others made financial contributions.

Through a partnership with St. Mary’s Parish in Westfield, the group was also able to net a grant from the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts. At this point, Ben-Ezra estimates that the organization has made 500 to 600 masks, which come in a variety of different styles, included traditional, pleated masks, “less fog” masks for people with glasses, and masks with a clear window to show facial expressions and help with lip reading.

The group is “now in a place where we have really bulked up our inventory” after initially not knowing what to expect, Ben-Ezra said, and hopes to partner with other local businesses for advertising and sales.

“A lot of people in the community feel a connection to this,” Ben-Ezra said, “and we’re hoping when we can gather together again, that we’ll be able to bring together our sewers and all those various people in the community who have supported us and continue to provide support.”

The group sells the masks online at im2.earth.

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at jvoghel@gazettenet.com.


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