|Berkshire Seamsters Market Homemade Masks, Benefit Those Struggling Economically|
|By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff |
04:06AM / Tuesday, May 05, 2020
|A small sample of the thousands of homemade masks produced in the Berkshires. The Berkshire Seamsters are selling masks and returning the proceeds to residents struggling to make ends meet.|
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — When the COVID-19 pandemic began shutting things down in Berkshire County, Kate Lauzon had a problem.
But with some creativity, hard work and outside philanthropy, she and her friends helped turn that problem into two solutions.
"A few months ago, I had started a community sewing program," Lauzon said this week. "We ran it out of the Froio Center. Three weeks into everyone learning how to sew, including myself … "
… the world, for so many people, came screeching to a halt.
"Sewing started three weeks before they shut us down," Lauzon said. "We were set up for 10 weeks, once a week. It was a free program. I had written a grant for it and had an instructor I paid for from the grant. Suddenly, everything was closed, and I was like, 'Now what?" "
Meanwhile, the bigger societal problem — the pandemic — was just getting started, and almost immediately people became aware of the need for personal protective equipment. Social service agencies and others found themselves in dire need like never before.
All those sewing machines and aspiring needleworkers became part of the solution.
"I was sewing masks and not really knowing how to sew yet," Lauzon said. "I then found a bunch of people on Facebook who ended up coordinating throughout Berkshire County over 100 seamstresses to sew masks to donate."
But Lauzon soon became aware of a new problem.
"It came to my attention that people were out of work and wouldn't be able to get unemployment benefits because they weren't traditionally employed," she said. "Anyone who filed their taxes using a 1099 form, so-called contract workers. Some of our immigrant neighbors. A whole mess of different people.
"A lot of them can get benefits now, but for the last few weeks they were not able to."
That led to solution No. 2: The Berkshire Seamsters were born.
The Seamsters are a network of four dozen Berkshire County residents working out of their homes to produce masks that conform to guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control that can be wholesaled to local agencies or retailed at more than a dozen locations throughout the county.
The group sells the reusable, machine washable masks to retail venues for $6.50 apiece; $5 of that goes directly back to the workers who are doing the sewing.
"Most of the places are selling them for more, like around $10, and most of them are giving the money right back," Lauzon said. "They're paying more than the $6.50, so that comes back to the workers."
The masks are not medical grade, but they do meet the standard for the kind of face covering mandated as of May 6 by an executive order from Gov. Charlie Baker.
Lauzon noted that there are still more than 100 volunteer sewers around the county producing masks with no intent to sell them or receive compensation. The Seamsters program is for those who can benefit from a little extra income during this trying time.
"You can continue to volunteer your time and materials," she said. "If you want to be part of this program, you're likely to sign up with us and get some funding, but most people are OK without funds."
The 45 who are sewing the masks that are being sold turned out 5,000 in one week. Those 45 sewers are broken into four groups — three in Pittsfield and one in Great Barrington — and team captains and Lauzon each check to ensure quality before masks are delivered to one of 16 retail locations throughout the county.
The community mask-making effort has benefited from a cash donation from Lee Bank and a boost from Berkshire Money Management, which paid for 20 sewing machines.
"We want to keep the money right here in the Berkshires," Lauzon said. "We're producing the masks here and keeping the money here, where it's needed. It goes to show what a great community we have."
Retail locations with Berkshire Seamsters masks available include:
Berkshire Co-op, Great Barrington
Carr Hardware, Lee, Lenox, Great Barrington, North Adams, Pittsfield
Common Folk Artist Collective, North Adams
George's Liquor Store, Pittsfield
Guido's, Pittsfield and Great Barrington
Hashim's Package Store, Pittsfield
Kelly's Package Store, Dalton
Lee Hardware True Value, Lee
Lenox Nursery, Acton
Liquors Inc, Pittsfield
The Locker Room Sports Bar, Lee
Loeb's Market, Lenox
River Valley Co-op, Northampton
Spirited Wines, Lenox
West Stockbridge Public Market
Wild Oats Market, Williamstown