Mask crusaders: Family launches Western MAsk Project

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  • Western MAsk Project co-founders Janna Ugone, left, and her daughter, Gina Whalen, make face masks in the front room of their Northampton home, which they converted into a sewing center, on Friday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Western MAsk Project co-founder Gina Whalen holds balls of yarn, made from strips of stretchy T-shirts, which serves as the elastic bands for many of the face masks that she and others are making. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Western MAsk Project co-founders Janna Ugone, left, and her daughter, Gina Whalen, make face masks in the front room of their Northampton home converted into a sewing center on Friday, April 17, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Western MAsk Project co-founder Gina Whalen attaches elastic bands, made from strips of T-shirts, to face masks on Friday, April 17, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Western MAsk Project co-founder Gina Whalen attaches elastic bands, made from strips of T-shirts, to face masks on Friday, April 17, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Western MAsk Project co-founders Janna Ugone, left, and her daughter, Gina Whalen, make face masks in the front room of their Northampton home converted into a sewing center on Friday, April 17, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • These bags with face masks created through the Western MAsk Project are ready to be delivered. Photographed on Friday, April 17, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Western MAsk Project co-founder Gina Whalen has collected a bag of colorful scraps from the seemingly infinite variety of materials used for making face masks though she hasn't found a use for them yet. Photographed on Friday, April 17, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Western MAsk Project co-founders Gina Whalen, left, and her mother, Janna Ugone, pause from making face masks at their Northampton home on Friday, April 17, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Western MAsk Project co-founder Janna Ugone, right, and her daughter, Gina Whalen, deliver a face mask to a Northampton neighbor's home on Friday, April 17, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Western MAsk Project volunteer Evelyn Snyder sews face masks in the kitchen of her Florence home, Thursday. To speed production she works from a basket of cut patterns. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Western MAsk Project volunteer Evelyn Snyder makes face masks in the kitchen of her Florence home on Thursday, April 16, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Pieces of fabric cut from patterns are ready to be sewn together into face masks. What looks like green beans in the center are actually strips of T-shirts that serve as elastic bands. Photographed on Thursday, April 16, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Western MAsk Project volunteer Evelyn Snyder sews face masks in the kitchen of her Florence home on Thursday, April 16, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Western MAsk Project volunteer Evelyn Snyder cuts the thread between a dozen pieces after sewing the hem in one pass under the needle. Photographed at her Florence home on Thursday, April 16, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Western MAsk Project volunteer Evelyn Snyder of Florence irons a completed face mask which gives it a little rigidity. Photographed on Thursday, April 16, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer 
Published: 4/19/2020 6:34:39 PM

Before the pandemic, Gina Whalen said she’d never used a sewing machine. Since then, she’s gone on to make at least 900 face masks for her family’s Western MAsk Project. 

“I just learned to sew on a machine about a month ago for this project,” she explained. “I didn’t know how to sew on a machine. And then I got good when the need was there.” 

Janna Ugone of Northampton, her husband, Peter Whalen, and their daughter Gina, 23, decided to launch the Western MAsk Project last month as a way to bring face masks to local area residents during the coronavirus pandemic. 

The family partnered with other people in the local community to kick off a grassroots nonprofit network, which has since provided hundreds of face masks to people across the Pioneer Valley, including 75 western Massachusetts residents as well as the Easthampton Fire Department, Craig’s Place, a homeless shelter in Amherst, and the Department of Developmental Services. 

During this past month, Ugone, her husband and daughter have spent long days working on masks and delivering them till well past midnight. Gina sews, Janna cuts fabric and Peter has been doing loads of  laundry, making sure all the material is cleaned. 

Ugone said right now the Western MAsk project is focusing on creating at least 250 masks for Riverside Industries —  a nonprofit organization that empowers people with disabilities by providing them with life skills and employment in western Massachusetts. These masks will be made by 40 to 50 volunteer sewers, she said.

Meanwhile, the project is also paying out-of-work sewers and seamstresses across the country via individual mask orders for residents and families. The people making these masks are single parents, people with disabilities, or people who have become recently unemployed due to the pandemic, Ugone said. 

Their current work sprang from their original efforts supporting Northampton resident and sewer Caitlin Carvalho’s mask-making efforts for local hospitals and essential businesses. They soon realized that masks were needed for local residents as well, which led to the creation of the Western MAsk Project. 

“We’re trying to accommodate everybody and give income to those in dire need right now as well as get these masks out swiftly to our residents,” Ugone said. 

When they launched the project, they had more demand for masks than they could meet with the number of available volunteers, tbut hey soon found more people willing to lend their sewing skills and now the nonprofit is taking orders on its website, Ugone said. 

With the U.S. Postal Service now slowing down its delivery services and packages taking two to three days longer to arrive at their destinations, the nonprofit has also created a volunteer team of people delivering masks locally. 

Mary LeMoine of Easthampton has been volunteering with Western MAsk Project by driving for pickups and deliveries of fabric and masks from local sewers.

“I’ve also been delivering face masks to people’s mailboxes as they’ve been placing orders … It’s so wonderful for residents to contribute and benefit from this. Many residents that we’ve met along the journey have donated ready-to-use fabric, and sewers and seamstresses have donated hours of their time. They all have expressed how thankful they are to be part of this cause.” 

LeMonie said she’s made deliveries to communities across Hampshire County, including Amherst, Belchertown and Easthampton. 

“We’re hopeful people that need masks will contact us or someone will contact us on their behalf,” she noted. “And we can continue to support the sewers who are out of work and also the volunteer work for much needed causes such as Riverside Industries … I know there’s such a need for them as they start to require people to wear masks everywhere now.” 

Judith Fine of Northampton has made at least 50 masks for Western MAsk Project as a volunteer sewer. Each one takes her about 20 minutes to make. 

“As far as how you make them? You put some pieces together and you cut and sew and iron and turn them inside out and put your ties on and — boom, you’re done.” 

She added that she’s impressed by the strong level of support for one another in her own community. 

“We are such an incredibly giving, caring, thoughtful community,” Fine said. “Those who can have absolutely reached out to see, ‘What can I do to help?’ I’m just one many hundreds, if not thousands, of people who are doing what they can do because we are all in this together.” 

For more information about the Western MAsk Project, visit westernmaskproject.com

Chris Goudreau can be reached at cgoudreau@gazettenet.com.




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