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REAL MEN SEW MASKS by Gary Jones

Finding a way to be a helper

I had never sewn in my life. But five years ago, when I bought a sewing machine for my daughter, it was meant to be a father-daughter learning project. We were going to make a costume together. We bought supplies, learned how the machine worked and then put it all away. She had moved on to the next thing.

Fast forward to late March 2020 when I saw people I know posting on Facebook about sewing masks to donate to local hospitals. A group had started, SOMa Sewing Volunteers, and people were sharing advice and materials, and dividing up the work to get the most done. I wanted to help.

As a young child I loved Mr. Rogers, and even after I had outgrown the show I would sometimes put it on because he made me feel safe. I remember his “look for the helpers” message.

On 9/11 we lived on the Jersey City waterfront overlooking a staging area for supplies going to the site of that horrible catastrophe. Helpers were everywhere, working around the clock to manage the supplies being donated. It was an extraordinary event that brought many of us closer together wanting to do whatever we could to help.

The virus has brought back those feelings of wanting to help. By the next Saturday evening, I had gotten all the sewing gear out and had set up a workspace. By Sunday, I was at the machine – ready to make masks. I had everything I needed: cloth, thread, elastic and a sewing machine, so it was time to see if I could, in fact, sew. By 9 p.m. I had completed five masks. Making many mistakes and figuring out how everything worked meant I was on pace for completing a mask every 90-plus minutes, far off the 10- to 15-minute pace everyone was discussing on Facebook. I was thrilled and ready to make more. I posted my success to Facebook that night and continued to make masks every evening that week. Tina Kelley, the organizer of the SOMa Sewing Volunteers, noticed my posts and invited me to join the group.

I hope that sharing my effort might inspire someone to step outside their comfort zone as I have done. My masks are clearly not high fashion. But I like to think that someone wearing one of them is smiling behind my low fashion creation and appreciating the effort, made by someone who can’t sew very well, to protect them.

This virus is another extraordinary event. The Maplewood/South Orange community is also extraordinary; this sewing group is now more than 500 people strong and has delivered 10,000 masks. If you had asked me at the start “Do you know how to sew?” I would have said no. I still don’t think of myself as a sewer.

I am doing this to help the people who are now unwitting soldiers in a battle to save lives. I am grateful for my family, my community, SOMa Sewing Volunteers – the Facebook sewing group – and the opportunity to be a helper. I am at 60 masks and counting.

Gary Jones, an Edward Jones Financial Advisor, has lived in Maplewood with his wife, Martha, two children and Molly the dog since 2003. He also serves on the board of the Maplewood Chamber of Commerce and the regional Alzheimer’s Association.