Community Conversations

Former state rep uses networking, sewing skills to help during the pandemic

BJC Women and Infants Center team with homemade masks
The BJC Women and Infants Center is one of many groups who have received homemade masks made by ProgressWomen and its volunteers.
Stacey Newman, Executive Director and Founder of ProgressWomen and former Missouri State Representative

Former Missouri State Representative Stacey Newman is currently the Executive Director and Founder of ProgressWomen, a statewide social justice organization focused on reproductive rights, gun violence, and civil justice. She had events and meetings planned throughout Missouri when everything shut down for COVID-19. “Our spring schedule was cut,” she says of the early days of the pandemic, “Everyone’s at home. You’re nervous. What do you get involved in?”

A New Project

Her answer came from ProgressWomen board member Adelaide Lancaster. Adelaide’s husband is a surgeon at BJC, who worked on a mask prototype designed as the next best thing if personal protective equipment (PPE) became unavailable. The masks are lined with pockets for medical grade filters and include nose wires for fit. Adelaide and a friend had started two Facebook pages: PPE for STL, which sought PPE stored in other locations, such as schools and labs; and The Greater St. Louis One Million Mask Drive, in search of people who could sew masks.

Just a few of the masks made by over 130 volunteers coordinated and supplied by ProgressWomen.

When Stacey heard about it, she says, “A light bulb went off in my head.” She had a mailing list of 10,000 people in the greater St. Louis area, and she knew how to sew.

“I sent an email, expecting maybe 20 people like me who might want to jump in,” she says, “but by the first of April, our volunteer list was at 130 people. The next thing I knew, I was running a full-time operation at my dining room table.”

Supply and Demand

Stacey’s Richmond Heights home is a central point for getting materials back and forth to each volunteer. “I’m assembling the fabric kits to drop off to people to cut,” she explains, “They come back to me, and I assemble the sew kits. I’ve got someone else cutting all of the ties.”

She and a couple of neighbors sew in the nose wires before packaging and delivering the masks, and they try to maintain a safe distance. “You develop a system like the old Pony Express—all these drop offs,” she says, amused by the mysteriousness of it all.

Volunteers recruited people as well. Stacey says she has been working with many people she hasn’t met, some with their own mini operations, dropping off hundreds of masks. “I’ve got people mailing me packages from Cadet, Mo., and Lincoln County, Mo.—all over the place—that have recruited friends, neighbors, and sisters-in-law.”

Stacey handles donations through ProgressWomen and supplies 130 volunteers, but there are many groups making masks. She says, “It got to be a little comical, in a way, because all of us are battling over the same white thread at JOANN Fabrics.”

Overwhelming Support

Nearly $10,000 has been raised through public donations. When she heard hospital staff were restricted from cafeterias during the lockdown, ProgressWomen was able to purchase meals from local restaurants and take them to frontline workers.

“That was a real heart-tugger,” she says, “Even though we only had a few minutes to unload 175 meals from the car into their carts, we were able to pick up the emotion, their frustration, and their exhaustion.” They delivered 320 meals to area hospitals.

While delivering meals to ER staff at Christian Hospital Northeast, she was asked for homemade masks for their recovered COVID patients going home. They have filled masks requests for other hospital populations throughout St. Louis, including postpartum moms going home with their new babies.

When Greater St. Louis Area One Million Mask drive reached their goal, her volunteers didn’t want to stop. They started making masks, including ones without filters or wires for kids, to give to trauma surgeon Dr. Laurie Punch’s anti-violence center in St. Louis, “The T” (for trauma, tourniquet, and time).

Stacey says, “As long as I have volunteers begging to cut and sew, along with funds for supplies, we will continue meeting the need for kid masks for day care centers, community centers and the St. Louis City public schools.”

Stacey has found the generosity of people’s time and money most remarkable. “The best part about all of this is the community,” she says, “It’s not just who you’re giving to, but who is doing the giving.”

Visit ProgressWomen or its Facebook page to follow Stacey’s efforts.

Visit One Million Mask Drive or its Facebook page to see instructions on how to create the mask prototype.