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Lokvani Talks To Manisha Jain

Ranjani Saigal

Manisha Jain has been a leader in the education sector in the Boston area for the past twenty- five years. Passionate about intellectual as well as creative pursuits, Manisha likes undertaking new challenges that transform visions into reality by efficient execution. A collaborator and a team player, Manisha has been actively involved in the community as a volunteer for several organizations such as Saheli, Triveni School of Dance, Ekal Vidyalaya, Palakurthi Foundation, Hindi Manch,  and others, wherein she likes to lead silently and by example. In all her endeavors, Manisha strives to abide by her life mantra of pursuing excellence coupled with lifelong learning and giving, and values that as the single most important individual trait for success and contentment in life. Manisha lives in Dover, MA with her husband, and together they have successfully raised 2 daughters. She recently started the Sew We Care initiative in MA along with immense support  from Jharna Madan.

What motivated you to embark upon this Mask Making Initiative?

When Covid 19 started feeling real to me, a deep sense of anxiety set in. Being an A type personality, I needed to do something to channel this into positive ways. I came across a request for sewing handmade masks with very clear instructions by Emerson Hospital in Concord, and decided to act upon it. Upon successfully making one, I realized that if I had more fabric and people helping me cut and iron, I could sew a lot more per day. Out of desperation, I posted this plea for help on facebook and in my town group, and within a couple of hours i received tons of fabric donated at my doorstep. At the same time Jharna Madan, a dynamic leader in our community, reached out to me saying,”I saw your post on facebook, I want to help.” Encouraged by the generosity of so many and by Jharna’s willingness to help, I called her and we decided that I would make an instructional video and she would help spread the word. Rest is history! In a nutshell, it was my anxiety and the need to do something to help, that spurred this project, but it gained wings through the generosity of Jharna and countless others in our group, now called, “Sew We Care.”

What value do these masks, that are not N95 masks hold?

Homemade 100% cotton masks are valuable because they can elongate the life of a N95 mask. Since many healthcare workers are only given one N95 mask and asked to reuse it, wearing a homemade mask over the N95 mask adds a layer of defense. The homemade masks can be easily sanitized in a washing machine, and used over and over again. Also, there are many auxiliary support staff who are at the frontlines of the COVID19 crisis. They may not have as close contact with infected patients, however they are in high-risk environments and coming into contact with lots of people. The homemade masks have been happily received by doctors, nurses,  support staff, as well as police officers and nursing home staff. 

Could you describe the process of the Mask Making? Where do you get the cloth? 

It’s a completely collaborative, yet socially distanced, process. The instructional video I made along with the sewing video was shared with all our volunteers. Jharna and I created a whatsapp and a facebook group wherein people were encouraged to reach out to either of us for guidance and questions. Our volunteers designate themselves by ability: providing 100% cotton cloth, cutting, ironing, sewing, or delivering. Our WhatsApp group is used to communicate requests, delegate tasks, and exchange tips & tricks to work efficiently. For example, my daughter fashioned a tool that allows up to 9 masks to be pleated at once, versus one by one. So it’s basically an assembly line that spans across households, all connected by our collective desire to be of service through sewing. My home serves as an epicenter: those providing cloth will drop off the bag on my porch, and those who cut & iron will come pick it up. Once cut and ironed, someone else is responsible for actually sewing the masks. Finally, the masks are delivered. At each step, Sew We Care volunteers from different households are never within 6 feet from each other, and all bags and cloth are immediately sanitized. 

Though a lot of fabric has been donated, some new, some gently used, people are also ordering sheets and fabric online. Recently, we were fortunate to partner with Spoonflower fabrics in NC, who donated 60 yards of fabric that was shipped directly to me, to make 500 masks for Beverly hospital in MA.

How many masks have you made and distributed to date?

We maintain a spreadsheet that is shared with all our volunteers. To date, we have made and delivered 2,600 masks to 43 different organizations and hospitals. We have about 2000 more mask requests in the pipeline, and are actively working to create these and more. 

Who are your target clients?

Our priority has always been the protection of those at the frontlines of the COVID19 crisis, namely healthcare workers and their support staff. Some of the hospitals we have donated to include Beth israel, MGH, MetroWest Framingham, Emerson, Norwood, Melrose, Brockton, VA in West Roxbury, Heywood in Gardner….along with area nursing homes, senior centers, home healthcare centers, police officers etc.

How many volunteers do you have in the team?

We have approximately 120  volunteers, spanning 35 different towns in MA and NH. Many of them are part of a large whatsapp and facebook group that Jharna and I manage, and some coordinate with us on an individual basis.. Each of these volunteers are not alone...their entire families are behind and with them. So in reality we have an average of 120 X 4 which is about 500 generous souls involved in this project currently. Our Shrewsbury group is managed by Malini Mohan Kumar and they handle and fulfill requests in that area. We have “Sewing hotbeds” in Dover, Sharon, Lexington, Burlington, Chelmsford, Westford, and Nashua, NH. Vinod Kapoor ji and his family of Masala Art fame has been of huge help in taking supplies and masks back and forth between Lexington and Needham daily. Our volunteers range in ages from 10 years old to 70 years old, all engaging in whichever way they can to help. 

What has been the reward of doing this?

A deep sense of gratification and a renewed faith in humanity are my rewards from this project. Many of the Sew We Care volunteers are working professionals, but more than any professional success we’ve ever experienced, has been the joy of selfless service through mask-making during COVID19. It’s beautiful and heartwarming to see so many people joining hands so selflessly, coming together to help those who are risking their lives each day to protect us. I don’t even know 90% of these amazing individuals but they keep coming, keep sending messages like, “I will drive any distance, rain or shine….!” The wave that this ripple has created in our community moves me to tears and makes me believe in the inherent goodness of people. This has brought hope into a seemingly hopeless time. Today the need of the hour might be sewing, but tomorrow if we are faced by a different crisis, I am positive that our Sew we Care group will rise to the occasion. Of course, the heartfelt messages of gratitude and appreciation that we’ve received from healthcare workers keeps us energized and motivating to keep creating and giving away masks. 

Are there any challenges?

When we first began this endeavor, many skeptics doubted the efficacy of homemade masks, but we did not let this demotivate us. We kept receiving requests from local hospitals, and felt confident that we could follow their guidelines. Sourcing fabric and supplies has been challenging as the demand keeps increasing.. Of course, the need to maintain social distancing during this process has been challenging. While many of us the Sew We Care volunteers were strangers to each other a month ago, we have forged unlikely bonds during this uncertain time. We even had our first zoom meeting and got to say hello to each other. We can’t wait to have a proper dinner party and embrace each other! 

How can our community help in this initiative?

I am very grateful that the community has come forward the way it has. Every day more and more people are coming forward asking to join our efforts. We’d love for this model to be replicated in other towns, or even states. We just got the exciting news that one of our  members shared the video and model with people in  India, where 5000 masks were made and donated by an NGO near Kolkata, with the generosity of sponsors who provided fabric. Seeing this kind of social impact being created is the biggest reward and motivation for me!

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