Lawndale resident sews masks at Stone Temple Missionary Baptist Church. Credit: Pidgeon Pagonis

NORTH LAWNDALE — West Side residents have struggled for weeks to find reliable places to purchase reusable cloth face masks, an essential need in one of the areas hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic.

So Lawndale residents took things into their own hands, developing a reliable system for sewing masks and getting them to the people who need them most.

The North Lawndale Cares mutual aid group was formed from the North Lawndale Community Coordinating Council as a small and nimble rapid-response team to meet the urgent needs of residents.

While the neighborhood council brainstorms more long-term ways to bring city and state resources to the area, the mutual aid team began looking at the assets already in the neighborhood to boost the community’s capacity to handle the pandemic. 

“We realized that we had all these resources… so people are getting masks from the city, but we felt like we didn’t need to wait for that,” said Andrea Lee who is on the mask-making team. “We have that capacity here in North Lawndale, so why don’t we come together and support each other?”

The group borrowed eight sewing machines from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago at Homan Square and set them up in a makeshift production line at the historic Stone Temple Missionary Baptist Church, where Pastor Reshorna Fitzpatrick offered up her space.

The team makes the masks from donated non-stretch fabric such as t-shirts, linens, and reusable grocery bags. They wash, sanitize and cut the fabric at home, then bring the materials to Stone Temple to be sewn into masks.

The teams sanitizes the masks once again using the church’s laundry facilities.

The masks then are distributed to residents through the NLCCC network and community partners such as West Side Mutual Aid and UCAN, which shares resources through its violence interrupters street outreach team. The group is currently working to fill a request by Legacy Charter School for 1,000 masks.

But with such a high demand, North Lawndale Cares is now seeking donations of more materials to use for the masks.

“We’re trying to get fabric from used clothing because 80 percent of the world’s clothes don’t get recycled,” said NLCCC member Annamaria Leon.

The toughest material to find has been elastic for the mask straps since many retailers are out of stock, the group said.

The sewing team is accepting donations of non-stretch fabric, preferably cotton, to use in the masks. They are also hoping businesses and organizations will donate excess stock of clothes and reusable cloth bags that they aren’t utilizing due to the shutdown.

“A lot of the big events where they give out those reusable bags are probably not happening. And so we’re trying to find one of those to donate,” Lee said.

The sewing team is accepting donations at Stone Temple Missionary Baptist Church, 3622 W. Douglas Blvd. during their work hours Monday, Wednesday and Friday from noon to 2 p.m. Any used clothing must be cleaned before being donated.

Those interested in making a donation to the North Lawndale Cares team can email or call or text 312-966-0346.

Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.

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