Making masks, making community: Two grassroots mask-making initiatives that made a difference in East Scarborough

View from behind of a local Woburn volunteer sewing a mask at their sewing machine
Left image: A box filled with hand-sewn fabric masks, each individually packaged with instructions on how to use and wash them. Right image: view from  behind of a local Woburn volunteer sewing a mask at their sewing machine.
Left image: A box filled with hand-sewn fabric masks, each individually packaged with instructions on how to use and wash them. Right image: view from behind of a local Woburn volunteer sewing a mask at their sewing machine.

It is undeniable that the East Scarborough community has been hit hard by COVID19 since last spring. It’s also true that all the while, and still today, grassroots leaders in the community have been working together on-the-ground to make sure their neighbours are safe, cared-for, and have what they need to weather this storm. Making masks has been one powerful way that a number of different grassroots leaders and groups in East Scarborough have spearheaded their own initiatives to keep their communities safe. These mask-making initiatives are inspiring examples of a connected community at work: local individuals and groups mobilizing their strengths and talents, connecting with resources, and working together to respond to the call of what their community needs. We are highlighting two grassroots-led mask-making initiatives here. Read on to hear grassroots leaders sharing their stories and learnings about mask-making as a form of community care and connection in a challenging time, as well as a skill-building opportunity.

Masks for kids in Tuxedo Court: Nidhi and Nita

Nita Goswami and Nidhi Prajapati are both resident leaders in the neighbourhood of Woburn, residing in the Tuxedo Court area. If you’d asked them one year ago, Nita and Nidhi may not have identified as resident leaders. But when COVID19 hit their community hard, both women mobilized their strengths and gifts to support their community, and a powerful collaboration and mentorship began. It all started with their shared passion for sewing. 

In the spring, Nidhi had recently graduated from a post-secondary program in fashion design. She wanted to build her design and sewing skills more, and also support her community in a tough time. She learned that her neighbour Nita had started sewing masks and was training other volunteers in the building to sew masks too. Nita is a parent of two young children, school council chair at Woburn Jr. PS, member of the resident-led Woburn Local Planning Table (WLPT), and coordinates the “Woburn Jr. Families” network of 110 local families in Tuxedo Court. You can read more about Nita’s mask-making and WLPT’s other work to support their neighbours in spring 2020 here. Nidhi first started helping Nita sew masks as a volunteer. 

As Nidhi started sewing more masks, Nidhi’s sister asked her, “Can you make masks for my kids?” Nidhi learned that local parents like her sister were struggling to find masks for their children that fit well and didn’t fall off. With mentorship and encouragement from Nita, Nidhi applied for a Rising Youth grant to make masks for local kids. She got the grant.

Nidhi set to work. Nita found and suggested to Nidhi a special 3D mask pattern that worked best for kids’ masks. Nidhi sourced fabric, recorded training videos to share with volunteers, and coordinating an “assembly line” of neighbours working together to make 650 masks for local kids. Some youth who didn’t know how to sew still got involved by helping to package the masks with informational flyers. These masks went to kids in 120 families in their apartment building, as well as to 3 local schools, and one youth drop-in program, connections coordinated with the support of the Woburn Local Planning Table.

Left: A woman smiling at her sewing machine, sewing a mask. Right: A young woman hands a package of hand-sewn masks to another woman. They are both looking at the camera, wearing masks. They are in an office.
Left: Nita Goswami at her sewing machine. Right: Nidhi Prajapati (left) delivering masks to local youth-serving organization Strides Toronto.

What was most meaningful to Nidhi about this work? “Receiving thank you notes from kids and parents: “All the thank you notes, and people saying they’re really comfortable, it’s not falling off their noses. That was the best. Some kids sent a thank you note recording, it was really cute!” For Nita, mentoring Nidhi was very meaningful to her: “She’s very enthusiastic, I love working with her!” This was also a huge learning experience for Nidhi in building important professional skills, and it has given Nidhi motivation for the future: “I think this experience was a great motivation for me. It gave me an opportunity to try something in my field of fashion and made me realize that I am capable and can make a career in this.”

What’s next? In addition to gaining confidence in her chosen career of design/fashion, Nidhi has gained confidence and momentum as a young resident leader in her community. She is now spearheading a second mask-making initiative, making 200 masks for seniors in the neighbourhood. She has also joined the resident-led group Woburn Local Planning Table (WLPT) to continue making positive change for her community, encouraged by Nita and Leah Yuyitung, another local grassroots leader and founder of the WLPT. Leah has been a mentor and support to both Nita and Nidhi. She reflects, “In both cases, [Nita and Nidhi] did not think they were leaders when they started. To see Nita in this capacity is really amazing, and Nidhi started out very shy and then felt so much more confident and joined two other community initiatives from there and expanding. It’s great to hear the voices and passion of these community leaders! For leaders to come on board as willing and as passionate as they are- when we can carry together, makes it easier to carry when we do things together.”

Masks for hospitals and the community: A Storefront/resident leader collaboration

At the same time that Nita and Nidhi were starting to sew masks this spring, another local resident leader and yoga teacher in KGO (who prefers to remain anonymous) was starting to think about masks for her community too. She remembers, “I was watching the news all the time. I thought, maybe we should think of people in the hospitals, in the community, who will need those masks.” This resident leader had a sewing machine and some experience. She thought, “It looked easy enough. I’m not a tailor, but maybe I can do it.” She was in touch with the Storefront at the time, and the idea came up in conversation with Mash, The Storefront’s Grassroots Connections Coordinator who supports grassroots leaders. Mash was wondering if anyone in the community wanted to sew masks, and suggested that The Storefront could support that with materials and resources. Mash recalls, “We were looking for someone with sewing experience and she was looking for someone who could support her mask making idea. The topic came up and we realized that we were basically just looking for each other.”

Mash and this resident leader worked together to make a plan, and to get some other residents involved in sewing. Michael Garron Hospital was looking for people to help make fabric masks to distribute the masks to patients, family members, and anyone who was visiting the hospital. They had a pattern and instructions available to the public that Mash and residents decided to use. Michael Garron Hospital sent detailed instructions regarding how to make the masks. It included information such as the number of layers it should have and what fabric types should be used. There were also design specifications because we were making three different sizes: one for children, one for youth, and one for adults. The Storefront purchased fabric and accessories, such as thread and elastic bands for the ear loops, and delivered the supplies to the sewers at home. The resident leader’s own networks pitched in too: “I also got some fabric from other people- they heard I was sewing, so they brought me some fabric, my daughter pitched in with elastic.”

Mash looped in one other resident who wanted to sew, and the resident leader brought on a couple friends to help in different ways: “Someone else I knew in the neighbourhood (my yoga student), she helped out too, she and another person made 100. I made 300. Another friend and her aunt who is 92 years old who loves to sew, they made 10 as well. I also got 2 friends to help to cut material at one point.” All throughout the spring, summer and fall, these two resident leaders and other friends and neighbours of theirs continued to make batches of masks to deliver to Michael Garron Hospital and our community members with the support of The Storefront. Between spring and December 2020, this collective made over 600 masks!

The resident leader who spearheaded this initiative found it to be a very meaningful experience. For now she has stopped making masks, but reflecting on what making masks has meant to her, she shares, “I was occupied, first of all. It gave me some satisfaction also. I learned a lot of patience by doing this, and my sewing skills got better and better. I learned a lot of sewing skills and how to cut the material, the elastics.” In addition to building fun and useful skills, she also felt proud to put her skills to use to give back to her community: “I felt satisfied that I am making it for somebody else. I’m glad that I was able to pitch in a little bit giving back to the community.”

These examples show the ripple effect that can happen when even just one person puts their talents toward making their community a better place. One individual’s idea can become a group of neighbours working together and learning from one another. A group of neighbours can connect with a community organization like Storefront or a grant like Rising Youth to bring more resources and support for their good idea. Grassroots initiatives doing similar work can join forces– for example, The Storefront donated leftover materials from the mask making we supported in 2020 to Nidhi’s ongoing mask-making in 2021! Yes, the impact of these initiatives can be measured in numbers, such as the thousands of masks delivered to the community, and this is a huge impact. But the power of these initiatives and others like them can also be measured as a web of stronger connections, deepened relationships, and a sense of purpose and belonging for everyone involved. This is how grassroots leadership capacity grows, to the benefit of everyone in the neighbourhood, from residents, to social service agencies, to City departments. That is why at Storefront, we make it a priority to support and nourish grassroots initiatives like these in our community-building efforts, and encourage all the players in our East Scarborough community ecosystem to do the same.

3 Comments on “Making masks, making community: Two grassroots mask-making initiatives that made a difference in East Scarborough”

  1. Thank you for helping and reaching out to people in need during the pandemic. You are the superheroes without capes but with masks!

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