BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
(Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series on women who are uplifting us during COVID-19 with the advice they share on the self-strengthening aspect of this time. We feature Tanya Polsky, a young mother and philanthropist who leads Sewing Masks for a Safe Chicago with her husband Michael and several Latin School of Chicago moms. Next, we will visit Laura Munson, bestselling author of Willa’s Grove and an expert on building your community in isolation, with profiles on other inspiring females to follow. The Sewing Masks for a Safe Chicago has established a GoFundMe page with additional information, including testimonials and photos from the mask recipients.)
Philanthropist Tanya Polsky’s first COVID call came from a fellow third grade Latin School mom–and a front line doctor–asking for her help and that of other moms in the grade. Just weeks later, 43rd Ward Alderman Michele Smith called the project they created “one of the most effective and impactful charities in the entire city.”
For those of us who believe that it takes just a few dedicated volunteers to change the world, this is your story. Meet these volunteers who can confidently say that they have made our streets safer.
Polsky, who is of Ukrainian ancestry and whose mother, a costume designer, taught her about fabrics, tells us how the PPE project began:
“In early March I got a text from Dr. Rohinee Beri, a critical care pulmonary specialist and a friend with another third-grader who reached out to say that hospital staff was working long, long hours without protective masks.
“She asked us: Ladies what can you do? Kim Vender Moffat, Sonal Gandhi, Anita Shastri, and others on the text knew we had to get busy. Everyone found a way to respond and committed to making an impact.”
“I thought of my housekeeper from Ukraine who had been trained in sewing and she said sure she would make masks, then she spread the word to her friends who sewed professionally. Someone thought of dry cleaners who have tailors who now would not be working. Each of us on the text chain reached out and we created a GoFundMe page.
“We decided early on that we wanted the masks we created to go first to the most vulnerable in our city—that became our mission. The largest outstanding need is for masks for the Racial Equity Rapid Response Team set up by the City of Chicago to address health disparities among minority communities who are disproportionally impacted by the pandemic.”
Emphasizing that wearing a face mask when in public is the number one way to stop community spread of COVID 19. Alderman Michele Smith told us:
“Their initiative has provided masks to almost all the social service agencies in our area and many throughout the city. it helps people and organizations and provides employment to out of work tailors and seamstresses. The bigger they get the more jobs they create. I’m ever grateful to Tanya Polsky for having the vision and business smarts to get this launched.”
Polsky told how they rapidly built the project to respond to the immense demand:
“With the support of donors including a $100,000 gift from our family, my husband Michael and I launched Sewing Masks for a Safe Chicago, a charitable effort that is producing three-layer reusable, high-quality cotton facemasks that are being donated to Chicagoans most in need while providing work for over 40 seamstresses and tailors during this unprecedented crisis.”
Soon the project had set up its own production network and is sewing and delivering high-quality masks across the city at no cost to organizations in need at the rate of 3000 masks per day. Distribution of the masks is being coordinated with the City of Chicago Department of Public Health, the Chicago Police and Fire Departments, and the Chicago Department of Family and Support Services, among other local public health and emergency response groups.
Patrick Whitty, one of the project’s indefatigable volunteers, told us:
“Over 40,000 of our masks have gone to departments or agencies of the City of Chicago, including 15,000 masks donated in early May to the Chicago Police Department—enough to provide a mask for every member of the force. The Chicago Department of Public Health has received 10,000 of our masks for distribution to homeless shelters across the city. We will be donating next week 10,000 masks to Chicago Public Schools. And we have already donated 1500 masks to the City of Chicago Department of Family and Support Services and 2000 masks to the Chicago Fire Department.
“[Additionally] we will have close to 80,000 masks made and donated by the end of next week. Also, the Chicago Police Department order we completed last week was made possible by a generous donation from Donald Wilson, made through the DRW Trading Foundation.”
Polsky said the two-month project has been a learning process as well:
“Along the way we got responses to our mask and we learned to make them a little thicker. We changed our design at one point. We bought electric cutting knives and industrial irons because the edges need to be folded back correctly. As with any large project there were roadblocks, but we kept trying and making better and better masks.”
In addition to helping her three young children whose schooling turned to virtual learning, Polsky found that she had been working for at least six hours a day on the project since early March, choosing fabric, finding tailors, and trying to meet the huge demand. With help from Michael Polsky’s office and from others, they have significantly ramped it up. Over 80 Chicago organizations will soon have received cost-free PPE thanks to these volunteer efforts.
Sewing Masks for a Safe Chicago has partnered with the Chicago Association of Veterans of World War II so that all contributions are tax-deductible, with 100 percent of the donations going to labor and material costs.
We asked Latin School’s Headmaster Randall Dunne to tell comment on what these third-grade mothers have been able to accomplish:
“I am humbled by the amazing efforts of so many within the Latin community who are going above and beyond to do all they can to help those in need during this pandemic.”
“The demand for PPE among Chicago’s healthcare workers, first responders, and vulnerable communities remains immense. We are literally sewing our mission. Disease breeds on poverty and we want to help the most needy,” Polsky told us. “Sewing Masks for a Safe Chicago is working to hit a $350,000 overall fundraising goal in order to help meet need for masks in the city.”