‘Look for the helpers’: Bedford Sewing Battalion making masks for those on front lines of pandemic

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The helpers: Theresa (left) and Emily Walker have been cranking out masks to keep health care workers safe during COVID-19 crisis. Courtesy Photo

Mr. Rogers’ anecdote about his mother instructing him to “look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping” has been famously quoted and become the material of memes over the past years, especially whenever a crisis arises. 

It’s the very first thing that came to mind when I sat down to virtually talk with the founder of the Bedford Sewing Battalion, Theresa Walker.

You see, in mid-March, when the Coronavirus crisis came crashing down and flooding all of our news outlets, Theresa and her daughter Emily turned to one another and asked, “what can we do?” 

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Mask production central. Courtesy Photo

They looked around their home, considered their resources and strengths — fabric swaths from Theresa’s online fabric store, sewing equipment, and creativity (which Theresa attributes to her children more than herself), and they set to work making masks.

“It’s a simple fabric and elastic project, and it’s something that keeps us from watching the news 24/7,” Theresa said. “And, unfortunately, it’s very needed.”

It’s strange to realize that in our modern United States, we were so unprepared with simple supplies for this medical crisis.

“It has a very foreign, Civil War-type feel to it,” Theresa told me, describing how their grassroots efforts began as a means to serve those on the front lines, who aren’t being adequately prepared for the battle they’re facing. 

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Special mask delivery to workers at Partnership for Successful Living in Nashua. Courtesy Photo

The duo took to Facebook, initially reaching out to a Bedford residents page, and then creating their own, Bedford Sewing Battalion group. The response was immediate, an outpouring of support from Bedford and local areas, “how can we help? What can we do? I can’t sew, but I have a sewing machine, can you use it? I can’t sew, but here is hot coffee, here is banana bread, here is my support.”

Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.

It’s a beautiful distraction for many who are anxious. It’s an empowering way to feel helpful in this moment of our history when many feel helpless. 

The Facebook group has grown to nearly 500 members in a matter of weeks, nearly doubling in the past week since she and I first spoke.

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“It’s a fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants operation,” Theresa explained, “and I think one of the things that helped us to grow so fast was that we have donors.” With the help of financial donors, she has been able to get supplies directly into the hands of her Battalion members, keeping everyone’s hands busy and the masks out the door as quickly as possible. Bill Grenier of Primary Bank, whom Theresa has never met, donated $5,000.

Without any prior connections to the healthcare industry locally, Theresa began cold-calling area hospitals and medical facilities on March 20. None of the administrations she spoke with said ‘no, they don’t do any good,’ and by the end of that afternoon, she was fielding calls from the healthcare workers themselves, asking her, “please, send us masks.”

“We’re doing everything we can to fulfill those needs. If there’s a need, we want to meet it.”

As the needs continue to grow, the Battalion members are finding themselves distributing masks beyond hospitals and healthcare workers, but also to first-responders and nursing homes. The larger hope is to continue to put masks in the hands of those who are most vulnerable, transient communities, transitional homes, prisons, and so forth.

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The need is great. The problem is so large that it can be hard to face in its entirety. It can leave one feeling helpless, but Theresa chooses not to focus on that which she can’t control, the sheer size of this pandemic with all of its frightening unknowns and our shortcomings, and rather focus on what she can do: “20 or 30 masks directly into the hands of someone who can use them? We can do that.”

“We’ve gotten better at delegating. This is bigger than what my daughter and I can do ourselves. The pay sucks,” she chuckled, “there is no pay, but, the benefits will be enormous when we’re finished. It’s a good thing and a bad thing, we’re thrilled to have the involvement, the more people we can have a positive impact on. We would love to see the curve flatten and we would love the see the medical supply chains correct themselves — and to see the needs for these masks dissipate, but until that happens, we’ll just continue to chug along and do what we do.”

If you would like to get involved, please contact Theresa and Emily at sewingbattalion@gmail.com  

To help financially, checks can be made payable to Primary Bank – attn Bill Grenier.

“And,” Theresa ended our conversation with a simple request, “if you need or know of people who need masks, let us know. We will keep sewing.” 


About this Author

Melanie Haney

Melanie Haney is a photographer, writer, wife, and mother of four. As a writer, she has been the recipient of literary awards and her fiction has been published in national magazines and in an assortment of literary journals. Her short story collections ('The Simplest of Acts' and 'This Perfect Mess') can be found on Amazon. Outside of creative pursuits, she is the co-director of the Thrive Outdoors Community Leadership Center on Elm Street.