A ‘feel-good’ operation

Anetka Napierajczyk and her mother-in-law make masks that help kids, ASL users communicate.

Back in March, Anetka Napierajczyk didn’t even know how to sew. Four months later she has three sewing machines and has made more than 1,000 masks, including ones with see-through screens for teachers and for people who use sign language. (Photo provided)

Back in March, Anetka Napierajczyk was supposed to be planning for a   Polish wedding celebration that was six months away. But COVID-19 was an unexpected guest and changed everything this summer.

“When the pandemic started, we were trying to find a way to help,” Napierajczyk remembered. “What can we do? It was a panic; nobody knew anything. It was very chaotic and scary.”

What Napierajczyk and her mother-in-law, Lori Makowski, did have was a sewing machine and a lot of fabric. Once they learned face coverings could help, they went to work on making masks and haven’t stopped.

But before spring turned to summer, Napierajczyk had another idea: What about masks with see-through windows? 

She saw a few online, designed for people who use ASL (American Sign Language). As someone with day care and preschool teaching experience, Napierajczyk thought the masks would be helpful for teachers, too.

“I always think of babies and little kids, and the thought of them going back to school and having to look at the teachers with masks on, it was scary to me,” said Napierajczyk, who emigrated from Poland eight years ago as an au pair and met her husband, Chris Caron, six years ago.

“It’s scary (enough) when kids have to leave their parents and go to school and the fact that they would have to look at their teachers wearing masks and not recognizing them, it’s so scary.

“They need to see our smiles.”

Napierajczyk posted her masks on Facebook, including on the Williamstown Talk page, and found people who agreed on the benefits of a mask with a window. Her teacher friends, people who worked in speech therapy, and those who regularly use ASL were all on board.

“It went bananas,” Napierajczyk said. “I didn’t expect all of these people to be so interested … I was so overwhelmed at first, just sitting there day and night sewing masks. But it’s the least I can do to help in this situation.”

And so a dining room table that would normally be used to host family and friends for a party or holiday feast was turned into a mask workshop. An operation that began with one nearly 40-year-old sewing machine tripled when they bought two more machines to keep up with the workload.

Napierajczyk and Makowski donated masks to grocery stores and senior homes in the spring. But they’re selling their masks, too. 

Anyone interested can find Napierajczyk on Facebook (“There aren’t any other people with my name out there,” she said with a laugh). Masks sell  for anywhere from $5 to $10. Napierajczyk has dozens of colors, patterns and designs to choose from, and makes the masks in sizes for adults and children.

The window masks are especially unique, since they’re not as readily available.

Anetka Napierajczyk and her mother in law, Lori Makowski, have made so many masks in the last four months that they’ve bought two additional sewing machines. “It’s been crazy,” she said. “But, really, what else better do we have to do? We might as well help the way we can.” (Photo provided)

“I looked for them and saw a few patterns,” Napierajczyk said of finding some online for people who communicate with ASL. “It’s brilliant. How else would they communicate? And then with my teacher’s mind, I thought this would be great for teachers, as well. 

“I feel like all of the Williamstown teachers jumped on it,” she added. ‘I need it, I need it!’ or ‘My friends need it.’ The orders just kept coming and coming, but I’m happy to do it.

“It relaxes me and it gives me something to do with my time. It’s fun, it’s really fun.”

And it’s helping a community that would otherwise be limited by communicating without the ability to read lips.

“I’ve heard from friends who have co-workers that having hearing impairment and they were saying that this made them so happy, that they wouldn’t feel excluded anymore,” Napierajczyk said.

“I love reading all of those comments and messages from people. It really makes me feel good and makes me want to do more and help more, and find other ways.”

The most surprising part of Napierajczyk’s mask project may be how it began. Yes, it started in March. But so did her sewing, period. Napierajczyk had no previous experience with a sewing machine before this spring.

“The first mask took me 45 minutes and now it takes me seven minutes,” she said. “Practice makes perfect.”

Working with your hands out of your own home isn’t foreign at Napierajczyk’s house: Her husband operates Dexter’s Jerky, which makes homemade dog treats, at home, too.

The couple hopes to reschedule their Polish wedding for sometime in 2021. Until then, Napierajczyk, who is in between jobs as day care facilities and preschools deal with the pandemic, will continue her mask-making operation with her mother-in-law. 

“You got to do what you’ve got to do,” Napierajczyk said. “We’ll have (the wedding) next year and it’ll be a lot of fun.”

(Photo provided)