Alumnae create comprehensive mask production effort

Sewing Masks for a Safe Chicago donated more than 120,000 masks and provided full-time employment to local residents

When COVID-19 caused a national shortage of personal protective equipment, a group of friends, led by Kellogg alumnae Tanya Polsky ’04, quickly mobilized to address the urgent need.

The group started out by making masks to protect hospital workers who could not get adequate PPE. Once hospitals were able to source their own PPE, the group began shifting its efforts to making masks for frontline workers in underserved communities and social service organizations like domestic violence shelters, food banks and homeless shelters.

As the orders for the masks poured in from organizations across the city, Polsky spearheaded Sewing Masks for a Safe Chicago, a comprehensive effort that employed seamstresses and tailors out of work due to the pandemic to make masks for the most vulnerable members in the city. The group was able to provide these masks at no charge due to a fundraising effort that yielded over $250,000 in donations. The initial funds came from parents at her children’s school, followed by contributions from Polsky’s connections in the Chicago business and civic community.

“In addition to the demand for protective gear in hospitals, Tanya also saw the need to protect community members outside the hospitals, including those who were homeless or displaced, food pantry patrons and staff, and health clinic workers. She knew we needed community support to ensure they were provided for free” said Kim Vender Moffat JD MBA ’06 who helped Polsky with community outreach efforts. Within three months, the group had produced 121,000 masks donated to 120 Chicago organizations, including Misericordia Heart of Mercy, The Night Ministry, the Chicago Police Department, the UIC Homeless Project, Holocaust Community Services, the Jesse Brown VA Hospital and many others.

The effort was not only about protecting Chicago residents, but also about mitigating the economic hardships introduced by the pandemic. “The opportunity to protect community members was clear, but we also saw a pressing economic need to keep local residents employed through the pandemic,” Polsky said. Seeing this need, she hired and mobilized 55 seamstresses and tailors and funded their full-time employment for several months.

Sewing Masks for a Safe Chicago produced and delivered an average of 5,000 masks each day and constantly iterated its production processes for greater efficiency and quality. By managing the labor force and production processes directly, the group could then quickly act on the feedback and tweak the mask designs in collaboration with the head seamstress. For example, when the Marjorie Kovler Center had an influx of children refugees in need of trauma-informed care, the seamstresses at Sewing Masks for a Safe Chicago were able to amend their mask designs and shift to making children’s masks for the Center.

“It was important to me that we supply the frontline directly versus working through distributors or aggregators. We found early on that we got helpful, frontline feedback from the doctors and nurses and other organizations that we supplied,” Polsky said. “We were able to evolve the design based on this feedback to make them more ‘user-friendly.’”

As word traveled of the group’s production capabilities, partnership opportunities began to emerge, like an opportunity to work with Margie Stineman ’03 at Lurie Children’s Hospital’s Healthy Communities Initiative and Amy Everard ’03 at Share Our Spare, which provides essentials like diapers and formula for families with young children. The three groups came together to distribute free masks, diapers and information about COVID-19 at Chicago Public School pickups.

Polsky and Vender Moffat said their time at Kellogg prepared them for this work by emphasizing the importance of collaboration and adaptability. “Team-based work is central to the experience at Kellogg, and that experience was certainly relevant to Sewing Masks for a Safe Chicago,” Vender Moffat said.

Polsky added, “We had the mindset to pool collective skills and resources, to work efficiently both economically and operationally, to evolve our offering and to take purposeful action based on real time need and feedback – all of which I felt like Kellogg promoted.”