It all started with pajama pants.
“Two years ago, I asked my husband to buy me a sewing machine for my birthday,” Angel Smith explained. “I wanted to learn how to sew pajama pants for myself because I’m really tall — I’m 5’10” — and I wanted comfy, baggy pajama pants.”
After a class at Jo-Ann Fabrics, the Cinnaminson resident made pants for herself, and then sewed a few more for gifts. Her sewing machine then took up permanent residence in a closet.
Permanent until January, that is.
Smith pulled her sewing machine out of storage to start crafting items that will benefit animals injured in the Australian wildfires. In March, rain’s arrival Down Under — finally snuffing out the destructive fires — coincided with COVID-19’s arrival in South Jersey, and Smith’s first charitable sewing endeavor morphed into something new.
“Right (after the fires), basically, COVID-19 started,” Smith said.
A dietician by trade, she left her last clinical position at a hospital in December, just before the coronavirus started to spread throughout the world “and COVID-19 became really scary,” Smith said. In March, when she heard from a former co-worker that the hospital was running short on PPE (Personal Protective Equipment), she looked up a tutorial and started sewing masks.
Then, she created a Facebook group.
“It was to see if there was anyone else I knew who would be interested in helping,” Smith recalled. “It exploded.”
As of last week, the group PPE Sewing for COVID-19 neared 175 members. The volunteers hail from throughout the area, including Cherry Hill (where Smith grew up), Collingswood, Sewell, Moorestown and Williamstown. Some sew, some pick up and deliver masks, and others track down materials.
“Every little bit counts. Every little bit helps,” Smith said.
Of course, PPE Sewing for COVID-19 has been doing much more than a “little bit.” When she created the group, Smith hoped to contribute 200 masks to those in need. As of last week, she estimated receiving about 1,800 masks from the group — and that doesn’t count about 700 more that members sewed and delivered to medical workers themselves.
“The majority of the people in the group I don’t know: I think I know maybe four or five members personally,” Smith said. “It’s been amazing.”
The group’s focus is a bit fluid, meaning as the days and weeks go on and needs from the medical community change, the volunteers adapt. In addition to masks, they have been sewing headbands with buttons to hold mask straps; mask extenders; and, more recently, scrub caps.
“There is a concern that COVID-19 can actually be transmitted via your hair,” Smith noted. “A lot of hospitals are enforcing rules medical professionals on the front line need to cover their hair.”
The scrub caps the group members are sewing include buttons, eliminating the need for a headband or mask extender.
“Every week, our focus has been pivoting a little bit depending on the feedback we’re hearing from people on the front line. The group has been very flexible,” Smith said.
She called some of the volunteers “amazing seamstresses,” and she’s grateful for everyone’s efforts.
“I feel so blessed to have brought some of these people together. They’re so giving and they’re so generous in their time and talents,” Smith said.
“They’re just incredible people.”
Some of the volunteers are from Smith’s own household, too. In addition to her husband, Joe, and 3-year-old son, Miles, Smith lives in a multi-generational home that includes her mom, Marcella Taormina, and sister, Cassandra DiMaio. ALS keeps Taormina from sewing, but she has so far crocheted more than 250 mask extenders. DiMaio, currently furloughed due to the pandemic, has been handling a lot of the more distant dropoffs and pickups.
In addition to volunteers coming on board, Smith said there were also a lot of monetary offers for the project — even from some people asking to pay for the masks.
“I just felt really uncomfortable with the idea of charging anyone for a mask. I feel like money oftentimes just creates drama,” Smith explained.
Instead, she set up a GoFundMe account (www.gofundme.com/f/ppe-sewing-for-covid19) that has raised more than $1,500. The money is being used to ship masks to hospitals and facilities not allowing non-essential people inside. Anything left will be donated to a COVID-19 response fund.
Smith said hearing from the medical personnel receiving the donated items has been “the greatest part” of the experience. Having spent the last decade working in hospitals herself, she understands the toll the job can take.
“I just know how hard it is to be a medical professional at any given time when there isn’t a pandemic and how hard it is to do that job on a normal day,” Smith said. “Under these extreme circumstances, I just felt a calling that I need to do something because I can do something.”
For now, PPE Sewing for COVID-19 welcomes all support, from new volunteers ready to sew or make deliveries to those who want to donate funds.
“It doesn’t seem this is going away any time soon, and the need has been changing. People with different talents are always welcome,” Smith said.
“It’s been an amazing experience. Even though it’s really scary and can be at times chaotic, it’s been unbelievably rewarding. That’s what’s keeping us going.”
To reach Smith, like the Facebook group by searching “PPE Sewing for COVID-19” at www.facebook.com or email her at PPESewingForCovid19@gmail.com. To donate to the group’s GoFundMe, visit www.gofundme.com/f/ppe-sewing-for-covid19.