Lessons on inspiring community action during the COVID19 pandemic

In March of 2020, I started the Stitch4Corona initiative: a community-based initiative which provided face masks to the Greater Toronto Area’s (GTA) frontline heroes and the most vulnerable populations to help combat the COVID-19 pandemic. We curated a network of 700+ volunteers and sewists from across the GTA, who dedicated their free time during the stay-at-home era towards stitching face masks to support our community. Together, we supplied material for, stitched and donated over 15,000 reusable, handmade, locally sourced face masks. These masks provided much needed protection to various community organizations around the city, including soup kitchens, homeless shelters, respite centers, walk-in clinics, youth centers, food banks, old age homes, indigenous groups, and much, much more.

The cumulative impact of Stitch4Corona extended beyond the thousands of donated face masks. Being one of the first community-based initiatives during the COVID-19 pandemic, we played a major role in inspiring community action against the pandemic. We became flag bearers of face masks and coverings, more than a month before the WHO and CDC changed their guidelines to recommend face masks. We inspired members of other communities, across Canada, the United States and even across the Atlantic, to start their own community-based initiatives to combat the virus. Most importantly, in an era of social distancing and stay-at-home norms which cautioned us against community engagement, we sought out the power and strength of our community. We drew from our local networks, friends, family, friends of friends, family of family, and provided them with a simple, safe, and straight-forward way of making a sizeable impact on their community. Much to our surprise, the response was inspiring. Often overwhelming.

I am writing this article, not to toot my own horn, but to write about the lessons I learned from starting the Stitch4Corona initiative amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. If not for others, then to remind myself of the various hurdles, and how they can be overcome, in preparation for the next, inevitable crisis.

Lesson # 1: Just Get Started

I vividly remember that Saturday morning in late March. The world had been turned on its head over the past couple of weeks. Schools, colleges, universities had shut their doors. Employees had been sent to work from him. I was sitting in the car next to my dad, bouncing off random ideas, wondering how we can help our community and our healthcare systems during the ensuing crises. I told him about the scarcity of masks and personal protective equipment at the hospital where I work, and how they were asking the community to donate their boxed, disposable masks. I asked him if we still had that sewing machine lying around in the basement; the same one my mom pulled out once in a blue moon to fix a seam or two in our clothing. I wondered: if we have a sewing machine lying around the house, there must be hundreds of people around the city who have one too. What if we started crowdsourcing home-made masks and donated them to the hospital? It sounded like a great fantasy. Just another one of our seemingly brilliant ideas, which became a distant memory by the next day. But this one seemed different.

I got back home that day, and could not seem to shake the idea. I am an engineer. I am pursuing my MD/PhD degrees. Every time someone asks me, why I decided to put myself through more than 15 years of post-secondary education, I always tell them that I want to make myself capable of making a difference in the world. Well, this was my opportunity. I could not just sit by and see our healthcare system crumple under this global pandemic. I could not imagine looking back at this once-in-a-lifetime crisis and realize that I stood by and did nothing.

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Demonstrating the first Stitch4Corona Mask

So, the next morning, I woke up and did my research, something I should be good at three years into my PhD. I found studies indicating that the ideal material for home-made masks was 100% cotton fabric. A 2ply mask made with that material was almost as effective as the disposable face masks that we were using at the hospital. After looking up some simple sewing patterns on YouTube, I asked my mom to dust off the sewing machine and help me stitch our first mask. It took a few tries, but we finalized a sewing pattern that was simple, easy to replicate and effective. Next, we found a local fabric supplier for rolls of cotton fabric and raided all our local dollar stores to get craft elastic for the ear loops, and craft wire for the nose pieces. We started cutting the fabric and assembling kits with enough material to make 10 masks each. With the help of my mom, we made an instructional video on sewing masks using our kits. I got my fiancé (Garima Shah) and my close friend and colleague (Chaim Katz) involved, who would be instrumental in scaling this initiative. With their help, by the end of the day, I had enough kits for a few hundred masks, a website with a volunteer registration form, a shiny new domain name, social media accounts, and an inspired, engaged and supportive family without whom none of this would have been possible.

We started reaching out to friends and family to spread the word. Before we knew it, we started getting a following on our social media and registrations on our websites. We had our first volunteers, willing to stitch masks and help in any way possible. We started dropping off kits, in a contact-less manner, to doorsteps around the city. We started reaching out to our contacts at the hospital and at the University, to spread the word and find a home for our home-made masks. To our chagrin, we hit a wall. What seemed like a no-brainer of an idea to us, raised a lot of early skepticism. People questioned our initiative, raising concerns about liability, reliability, and quality. We were discouraged, again and again, by the inability of our leaders to see the merits of this initiative. Despite these setbacks, we pushed through and kept looking for groups and communities who valued what we were trying to do.

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Kits of Mask Kits to be delivered to Stitch4Corona Volunteers around the city

We received a glimmer of hope from my PhD advisor, Dr. Taufik Valiante, a prominent neurosurgeon and scientist in the city, who became one of the first users of our home-made masks. With his help, we realized that it was not just our healthcare system that was struggling with the PPE scarcity, it was the vulnerable populations in the community that suffered the most. Whatever PPE the government could get their hands on was first directed to the hospitals, leaving next to no supplies for local walk-in clinics, homeless shelters, soup kitchens and other organizations supporting our community’s most vulnerable populations. So, we shifted gears and started donating masks to community organizations instead of hospitals. In a matter of a few weeks, we had over a hundred volunteers and had already donated over a thousand masks. It was at this point, that the tides turned. WHO and CDC changed their guidelines, and started recommending that all members of the community start wearing face masks and/or coverings in public places. The benefits of wearing masks in crowded public spaces became apparent and the demand for our home-made masks skyrocketed. After pushing the rock uphill for the first few weeks, we finally had gravity on our side, and the future seemed bright. What seemed like a slam dunk of an idea to us from the get go, was finally becoming common sense. All we needed to do was believe in ourselves, our drive, our passion, and our community. We needed to put aside the skepticism. We needed to just get started.

Lesson # 2: Ask for help

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Following the CDC and WHO announcements, our volunteer network started scaling exponentially. 100. 200. 300 volunteers, and more signing up every day. We were starting to get overwhelmed. We did not have the resources to buy more material, or to serve so many volunteers, spread out across hundreds of kilometers. We had discussions, day in and day out, trying to figure out our next steps. Should we stop? We had already inspired so many people to start making masks at home. Maybe we had served our purpose and the community could take the mantle on themselves? Little did we realize, the worst of the crisis was yet to come, and we were just getting started.

As we often did throughout this initiative, we found solace in our community. We started looking at our inbox more carefully, and found dozens of individuals across the city looking to get even more involved and play a bigger role in making this initiative a success. Reaching out to these individuals became the key to our future success. We started replicating what we were doing at one location, (i.e. cutting material, assembling and delivering kits, and retrieving stitched face masks) at various hubs across the city. We assigned hub coordinators to oversee each of the hubs. We were also fortunate enough to get more funding through our GoFundMe page, and material donations through businesses across the city who were excited to support the cause. With the help of our hub coordinators, we multiplied our productivity significantly, while reaching a much larger pool of volunteers. While our ultimate goal was to donate as many masks as possible, getting the community involved was also always a focus. By enlisting more high-level volunteers in the form of hub coordinators, we were able to get a much larger volunteer pool involved, allowing us to kill two birds with one stone.

As they say, it is in times of need that people show you their true colours. And our community was more colourful than ever. The outpouring of support from our community throughout the initiative was truly humbling. Even though we were overwhelmed with the demand for our masks, we were equally overwhelmed with the supply of willing volunteers looking to help. All we needed to do, was ask for help.

Lesson #3: Remember your Why

One of the most heartening achievements of the Stitch4Corona initiative was our ability to inspire others to get involved. Within a few weeks of starting our initiative, and soon after the CDC and WHO announcements, we started seeing other groups launch similar initiatives across the country, and even within our own community. I am ashamed to admit this, but my first emotional reaction to seeing these other organizations in our own community rise to fame and receive their due publicity was of envy. I felt that others were reaping the rewards of our hard work. I felt betrayed. Ransacked. Plagiarized.

I had to really dig deep and ask myself: Why did I start this initiative? Why did I get blisters on my fingers cutting spools and spools of fabric? Why did I spend night and day counting and packaging masks? The answer, was simple. It was to help my community. We are all products of our environment, and much like pot of clay on a wheel, we are moulded by our communities. I wanted to make sure that I gave back to the community that has helped shaped my life into something substantial. Into someone my parents are proud to call their son. I wanted to make a difference. I realized that it was not about receiving fame, or praise, or a pat on the back. It was about giving back. It did not matter who received the praise. What mattered, at the end of the day, is that people who needed face masks were getting them because of hard working members of our community, who spent hours of their lives making a difference. I had to keep marching on. And I did. And we did. All we needed to do was remember our why.

2020 has been nothing short of a rollercoaster ride. Whether we like it or not, the world today is a lot different from what it was at the dawn of this year. As we try to work our way back towards a new normal, it is important to remember the lessons we learned along the way. It is important to remember that we have strength in numbers. We are stronger together.

The Stitch4Corona initiative has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. I am forever indebted to my family, who were our early cheerleaders and workhorses, always pushing us on with motivation and ardent support. I am incredibly thankful to Chaim, Garima and my parents for pushing me along and refusing to let me quit. I am thankful to our hub coordinators who truly helped us scale this initiative. I am incredibly thankful to the various organizations that we were able to collaborate with: Sewing for Change, who took on the responsibility of cutting and assembling our kits a couple of months into our initiative; King&Bay, who donated thousands of masks worth of material for our cause; and SewForTO, who we shared knowledge, resources and contacts with. Above all else, I am inspired by the 700+ selfless volunteers who dedicated their free time to make this initiative a success, and make a difference in our community.