“When I was let go from my job as a bartender and my school shut down, I felt very helpless,” said Phil McNamara, a student at Erie Community College.
Unlike many of us who have been overwhelmed and had our lives brought to a standstill by the COVID-19 virus, McNamara, 41, turned his feelings of despair into an inspiring grassroots initiative he calls Buffalo Resilience.
McNamara had been scheduled to do an internship at Erie County Medical Center this summer. After what he calls a “very revealing” conversation with an ECMC physician about the community’s supply of Personal Protective Equipment, otherwise known as PPE, McNamara says, “I knew something had to be done.”
He posted a request to Facebook, asking friends for donations to purchase N95 masks. This quickly turned to a discussion about making masks. “Some had sewing machines and no fabric, some had fabric and no machines,” McNamara says, “I decided that the best way to help was to organize all of these people offering help – I could connect the right people.”
McNamara launched a GoFundMe campaign which quickly generated support, but he says the “real driving force” behind Buffalo Resilience has been Niagara Falls-based Custom Covers & Canvas, a company typically focused on porch covers and awnings this time of year that shifted its focus to cutting mask templates when the virus hit our region. “Without them, we would not have been able to do nearly as much as we have,” McNamara says. “They were working on prototypes before we connected and as soon as we did connect things really took off.”
McNamara’s initial focus was providing masks to hospital staff, but the Buffalo Resilience mission quickly grew to include nursing homes, community agencies, at risk neighborhoods, homeless and addicted populations, as well as doctors’ offices, childcare facilities, schools and businesses attempting to re-open.
“In all, we are working towards 10,000 masks donated,” McNamara says. “Once we assemble all of the mask kits we have right now we will reach that target. We just ordered more material and I received a number of cotton donations so we will be able to continue to donate wherever there is a need.”
Buffalo Resilience hasn’t been alone in addressing the urgent need for protective masks in Buffalo. Joanna Angie and Kerry Mitchell started making masks at the onset of the pandemic for frontline workers in their Elmwood Village neighborhood, seniors in their block club and people they knew with compromised immune systems. When they realized the need for masks was far greater than they could possibly meet on their own, they began reaching out to people who could sew and cut fabric and contribute to what they started calling Mask Up Buffalo.
“Early on, our block club leader, Linda Gellman, became a key contact and the local distribution hub,” Mitchell says. “Within just a few weeks, a small team of artists, neighbors, friends and friends’ friends had come together for the cause.”
Mask Up Buffalo has produced nearly 2,500 masks and is “still going strong,” according to Mitchell. The group is sharing the lessons it has learned with other block club leaders and helping to establish teams to assist those in need beyond their neighborhood.
“As with every relay, there is always a runner-in-wait,” says Mitchell.
Other mask-making initiatives include MadetoAid, a collaboration among Cannon Design, the University at Buffalo School of Architecture and materialsIn. Stitch Buffalo, the West Side not-for-profit that assists refugee women in creating handcrafted textiles. Stitch-made masks can be purchased for $7 at email@example.com or at their retail shop at 1215 Niagara Street after June 1.
“It has been a great collaboration among professors, researchers, professionals and independent sewists,” says Abell. “Mike Tunkey (of Cannon Design) saw the rise of DIY mask production and corralled teams from Cannon and UB to hone a more streamlined model. They came forth with a great, more protective and easy-to-sew design.”
Buffalo Resilience, Mask Up Buffalo, Made to Aid and Stitch Buffalo are working alongside other organizations – Operation Protect, Inspired Buffalo, Buffalo Mutual Aid Network, Sew Buffalo, among others – to share information and make sure that everyone in Buffalo who needs a mask gets a mask.
“We would love to join forces with anyone who wants to help,” says Phil McNamara.
“We have the best community,” says Linda Gellman of Mask Up Buffalo. “This is way beyond the City of Good Neighbors, this is City of Great Neighbors!”