“No one ever accomplished anything great sitting down,” said Chris Hadfield, the first Canadian astronaut to walk in space, in his 2013 book, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth. But a group of South Philly do-gooders started out that way, at the very least. Bella Vista resident Eugene Desyatnik and Graduate Hospital resident Nicole Jochym, who met virtually on the Philly Area Abolish COVID Facebook group, have banded together to start an impromptu volunteer organization dedicated to making and delivering face masks to essential workers, health care workers and, well, pretty much anybody who needs one. The idea came to Desyatnik on Day 3 of the city’s stay-at-home order.
“I said it seems like the most productive thing to do is to create a way that people can help from home,” said Desyatnik. “Let’s actually try to organize some people.”
Desyatnik and Jochym started their own Facebook page, Sew Face Masks Philly, as an offshoot from the COVID page. At the time, the CDC had yet to recommend wearing face masks to people veering out into public, saying that instead they should be reserved for healthcare workers. But Desyatnik said they started making them anyway, anticipating that recommendation would change, which it eventually did.
“None of us thought the guidance the CDC was putting out at the time made any sense,” said Desyatnik. “We’re glad to see that it’s since been embraced. But that has created unprecedented demand for face masks.”
In addition to the Facebook group, the volunteer organization created its own website, sewfacemasksphilly.com. The website’s homepage has a “donate masks” option and “request masks” options. The group accepts all types of masks, but if you decide to sew your own, it recommends three specific types of patterns: the Todaro Philly Face Mask, the RCoA Face Mask and the beginner-friendly Leah Day Face Mask. Links to YouTube videos providing tutorials on how to make each are provided on the website. Those requesting masks can request via an online form on the website. The organization just started accepting online donations on its website as well.
“They’ll go to paying delivery drivers and creating safe mask-making kits, which will include all the pre-cut fabric and the materials,” said Jochym, who’s also a medical student at Rowan University’s Cooper Medical School in Camden.
That’s right, the organization even has delivery drivers. About 12 of them, in fact. They’ll pick up or deliver masks anywhere within a 25-mile radius from Center City. The distribution side of the organization is run by a Point Breeze resident called Alex, who didn’t want to provide his last name.
“It’s fairly straightforward,” said Alex. “People put in requests for masks and they put in their donations of handmade face masks. Drivers reach out to the suppliers to pick up the mask and we sanitize them. [All drivers] must have gloves, masks and bleach spray. Then we put them in another sanitized bag, then drop them off to [the recipient].”
All the pickups and deliveries are contactless, and to date, more than 5,300 masks have been provided by the organization – despite some issues with Facebook.
“Some of our posts were auto-flagged by Facebook because they went against community guidelines for community goods,” said Jochym. “We were like, oh God, we should be proactive about this because we could wake up and have our group deleted.”
According to a statement by Facebook in a New York Times article, automated systems designed to prevent the sale of medical masks needed by health workers wound up “inadvertently block[ing] some efforts to donate supplies.”
Desyatnik picked up on the fact that posts were often removed when they contained the word “mask” and “buy” or something similar. He said that “m@sk” was often used instead of “mask” in an effort to “outsmart the bots.”
“We do have a website, but most of the communication happens on Facebook,” said Desyatnik, who noted that the group mostly has things under control now that they’ve figured out why posts were getting deleted.
He said the group felt it was important that people post on Facebook about receiving or making their mask.
“Those posts are important for us,” he said. “It’s a morale booster encouraging people to post their finished product. It’s a sense of accomplishment.”