“Hope, Love, and Community Will Never Be Quarantined” – a Mom-and-Son Home Factory Donates Masks to Hospitals amidst Pandemic

Everyone is talking about the pandemic and the government’s response, but one Colin Powell School student decided that talk was not enough. Over the past month, Patrick Koslecki and his mother, Shannon Koslecki, have produced hundreds of cloth masks using a sewing machine in their New Jersey home. They have donated the masks to hospitals, nonprofit organizations, and individuals in 25 states and three countries. The team uses donated fabrics, elastic bands, and other materials collected through appeals posted on social media. Siblings, cousins, and other family members have now begun to lend a hand in the production process, as well. Koslecki, a current MPA student at CCNY, says the project has brought a sense of purpose and social connection that counters the uncertainty and loneliness of this time of quarantine. 

Tell me about the moment the idea came up between you and your mom. What were you doing at the time? Who suggested it, and how long did it take you to decide to do it?

I actually run about 8-10 miles every day to clear my head and stay focused. Before going on my run (almost a month ago!) I read an article about nurses being in need of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).  During the run, a thought popped into my head, I would be able to sew it for them! I am not ashamed to say I was so excited to get home I even shaved a couple of minutes off my run.  When I got home, I asked my mom what she thought of the idea. Without skipping a beat she said "I'll get out my machine, where do we find a pattern?"  We didn't think this was going to take off the way it did.  We had one machine at the time, and put together 15 masks to send to a local hospital "just in case".  

How has the project influenced your family? Does your family have a history of starting such projects, or was this the first time?

This project has brought our family together: not only my immediate family, but also my extended family. My one aunt lives alone without children, and she has said this project is something she looks forward to helping with. During isolation, it can get a bit lonely, but this has kept us even more connected! 

My mother absolutely has a history of starting social good projects, usually without taking credit for it. She has organized anonymous silent auctions for cancer survivors who can't afford their bills and their treatments, raised money each year for different LGBTQ charities since I came out as gay, and (most moving and touching to me) purchased a dining room set for a woman in front of her at a checkout one year who couldn't afford her final layaway payment but had to host her grandkids for Thanksgiving and was crying to the sales clerk. She truly "walks the talk".   

How has the project impacted you personally during this difficult and challenging time brought by the pandemic?

This project has been one of the most humbling experiences of my life. I feel such gratitude that I am able to do this each time someone sends a message of thanks or even a request for more masks. That is not to say there aren't stressful moments! Sewing machines can be finicky, and when your machine needs to be readjusted time and again it can be rough. When orders keep coming in, it can be overwhelming. Sometimes sewing goes on until 3:00 AM, but somehow, we keep our heads down and we get the masks out the door. This project has helped me overcome the anxiety of being stuck at home for an indefinite amount of time. This has given me a purpose.

How have you managed to keep up with a full load of (now virtual) MPA coursework while building this family project?

I have tried to adjust my time and actually schedule out times for work, school, and sewing to stay aligned and on top of the work! This helps me stick to the task at hand without jumping back and forth from project to project.  

How does this project relate to your goals and values as a social impact professional?

This mission relates closely to what I want to do with my career. I hope to move into the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) space, and this mission has shown me what corporations can accomplish with a little adjustment. While I may be struggling to find the necessary tools right now, I imagine being on a CSR team at an international retailer, like JCrew, and helping them push this kind of project.  Further, when this pandemic subsides, I hope people continue to be motivated and passionate about CSR projects: we can and must give back to society now more than ever.  

You’re several weeks into the project now. What challenges have arisen? Have the donations of inputs continued? 

Challenges are always arising, but we are always moving past them. One big challenge is the demand of local people asking for masks. While I am happy to sew a couple of extras for people in the community, I cannot take personal requests, such as university colors or other specialized designs. Nurses and doctors are scrambling and grateful for whatever they can get their hands on, so I don't have enough inventory or time for customized orders. Explaining this nicely has become harder as I think some people are still oblivious to the actual pandemic at hand.  

Donations have kind of leveled off, but they seem to spike with each social media post.  I think staying constantly accessible and letting people know what we need has helped drive further donations! 

Are hospitals contacting you to actually request the masks, or how does it work?

Usually nurses from hospitals contact me, saying they saw a post, or they were put in contact with me from another nurse they know from nursing school.  The message is almost always the same: "I am a nurse at _____ and we don't have enough PPE.  I will pay anything if you can get me some masks for my team." The hospital itself does not make the request, but rather the nurses on the floors who are doing the work.  This just makes me think, do the higher ups know the conditions these nurses are working in, and that I, a college student with his mother and a sewing machine, have to supply PPE? These messages break my heart, so I am always sure to push them to the top of my list. 

What has been the response from health care workers and patients who have received your masks?
I have had messages sent to me, and photos taken in our masks, explaining just how thankful the teams are. I have gotten voicemails from nurses choked up at the simple fact of having an extra set of masks. This gives me the strength to keep pushing forward and sew more, even into the early hours of the morning! Healthcare workers are absolutely my heroes right now, and I will do anything I can to help them.  

Given the shortage of PPE nationally, are you engaging in advocacy to encourage private and/or public actors to address the shortage on a broader scale?

Yes, absolutely. I think private corporations have stepped up, but not enough. There is more money that can be donated and there are more machines that can be run to create masks. If my mother and I can sew until 3:00 AM, I would think a huge corporation can figure out how to keep machines running 24 hours a day. This is only made worse when our current administration sugarcoats the subject saying companies have done fantastically and pretending that we have enough PPE. I think average Americans have stepped up, but those in power are still not taking responsibility and could be doing more. Forget your bottom line, there are lives at risk. I send these messages to our representatives in DC, through letters to CEOs at companies, and through social media messages to corporations and executives.  

Have you heard of others doing projects similar to yours, and is any coordination happening?
I know of many people doing these types of projects, and oddly enough, not many are teaming up. I think we are all a bit overwhelmed with getting our orders out with as little hassle as possible. By staying singularly focused, I think we see more control in our outputs. Also, I think social distancing has made it harder to really collaborate on projects. 

Are there any plans to establish the project as a self-sustaining enterprise, whether nonprofit or for-profit?

My mom and I discussed this briefly, but we aren't really thinking too far into the future on this. We’re just taking it one day at a time! We might explore a structure such as, “for each mask sold, one is donated to health care heroes” – that’s if we decide to continue. I'm no businessman, though, so I’d need some help with that part. 

Overall, what impact do you hope the project will have on your community and society in New Jersey and beyond?

I hope this project shows our society that hope, love, and community will never be quarantined. No matter the circumstance, you can find a way to give back. 

I think a lot of people want to help but don't quite know what to do. Well, they can search for a yard of fabric or call a loved one who might be a seamstress and ask if they have anything to share – and send it my way! Or, people are welcome to make a cash donation, which I guarantee will only be used to cover necessary costs, such as shipping. We sometimes mail more than 20 packages per day.  

You can make a significant impact, even if it is small. A simple donation or envelope of elastic is worth its weight in gold! The biggest impact is an act that comes from the heart. 

How can people contact you about donating or ordering?

People can message me on Facebook (Patrick Koslecki) or Instagram (@itspatrickplease), or we receive cash donations through Venmo. 

And just to reiterate, we donate all of our masks. This isn’t a for-profit enterprise. Everything is free. If people order one, they’ll get one. I believe that health care is a human right no matter what; we all have to take care of each other at this time. I have so much privilege: I live in the suburbs, I have a home, I have food on the table every night. I think about the most marginalized people how hard it must be for them. So nurses and doctors are our first priority, but we also prioritize local nonprofits that are serving the most marginalized communities. 

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

HUGE shout-out to my mom, Shannon Koslecki: she is also my hero and deserves credit too (Even though I know she won't take it!)

Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us about this inspiring project. 

Read more about this project at the Caldwell University blog, Koslecki’s alma mater. 

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