You can feel the energy when you talk to people at the Colorado Sewing Coalition. It is clear that these people get things done. Even more than that, you can feel how much they care about their community. Making a difference is second nature and it’s been years in the making for these experienced organizers.

The Colorado Sewing Coalition (CSC) sprang into being over one week in March, at the initiative of Councilwoman Debbie Ortega. Debbie has been finding ways to support her community since graduating high school, from running nonprofits to holding public office. Her career is dedicated to service.

Debbie and Slavica Park, long-time community leader and advocate, had been discussing the need for a commercial sewing program for a while. Then the COVID-19 pandemic arrived. There was a glaring shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE), including masks. It has been hard enough for medical personnel to get what they need, let alone other essential workers. The community needed masks, ASAP.

Moving fast to make masks

Colorado Sewing Coalition sewerWithin a week, Debbie had used the connections and insight she’d built over years of helping the community to set up the Colorado Sewing Coalition. Resources came together through many community partners. Brad Laurvick, pastor of Highlands United Methodist Church (HUMC) and school board member, offered space and fiscal sponsorship: “One thing we have here at the church right now is space.”

Next, the CSC needed sewing machines. They reached out to long-time connections who were quick to respond. Mile High Behavioral Health, ARC Thrift and Denver Public Library all had sewing machines to donate or loan. The next step was getting fabric.

“It was funny the first time ARC came by with fabric,” remembers Brad. “I called out, “let me bring you a cart.” “A cart? the driver asked. Do you have a pallet?” There was a truckload of material.

The program is also designed to provide employment for those out of work due to the pandemic. Slavica came on as project manager. With 23 years in community and workforce development, she had the connections to find people who needed work and already knew someone perfect for site supervisor, Marysola Menendez. Jamie Giellis joined the effort, creating a system to manage orders. The experienced team quickly put together a website, logo and a Facebook page.

Within a week, they were making masks.

Colorado Sewing Coalition is just in time

Colorado Sewing Coalition masks in three sizesOnce they were set up, The team used their connections to spread the word. Debbie reached out to a reporter she knew at Denver 7. “The very day that Channel 7 did the story was the day that the CDC and Governor Polis released their guidance about people wearing masks in public. We got slammed with orders.”

According to Jamie, the Colorado Sewing Coalition had 18,000 orders as of April 25th and had delivered about 7,000 so far, with many more ready to go. They have had a half dozen orders of 1,000 or more so far, from places like RTD and King Soopers. Big orders have come from Mile High Behavioral Health, construction companies, and restaurants that need multiple per employee. Some have already made second orders. The Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment has put in a big order, as their people will be coming back to work soon. “That’s a good sign,” says Brad, “when the department of public health calls your program.”

A coalition of partners

This is truly a grass roots effort, bringing together many partners. Since the pandemic hit, Debbie Ortega is on a daily call will other local elected officials, like Brad. Another CSC partner came from one of these calls. Representative Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez told the group that Denver Tent Company had asked how they could help during this time. Debbie called them to see if they had a die cut the CSC could use. They made dies for all mask sizes and this has further streamlined the operation.

Colorado Sewing Coalition - Debbie Ortega demonstrates“This would not have happened without amazing partners in the community, who just came together to make it happen,” Debbie points out.

Sheet Metal Local 9 is yet another partner, stepping up with generosity and expertise. During the process of sewing a mask, it needs to be turned inside out. While at Denver Tent, Debbie had seen a tall metal post that was used to turn tents inside out during the sewing process. She went to the sheet metal workers’ union and explained what she needed. They came and looked at what CSC was doing and suggested a table mounted structure that would work for masks. In no time, CSC had its own unique tool, provided at no cost.

The union is now also making the metal nose clips that go on masks and will be providing those to Colorado Sewing Coalition as well.

Experience and ingenuity make a difference

The CSS is well-run operation, a place where people enjoy each other and are clearly proud of what they make. The team is very focused their on work, but there is music playing and occasional friendly chatter. The CSC is very strict about following the best practices for keeping everyone safe, following social distancing protocols. The masks themselves are even sanitized before going out, with a device they created using ozone for disinfection.

Colorado Sewing Coalition - Slavica demonstratingThe people at CSC are nothing if not ingenious. While being interviewed for this blog, Slavica was cutting elastic to a specified size. Brad came up to the table with a cardboard box and cut a narrow slit in the side, a measured distance from the end. He used a pen to create a spool for the elastic. He pulled a strip of elastic to the end of the box and cut it through the slit. Off came a piece of elastic of the right length, without measuring.

Everyone was thrilled with the new DIY tool, which Brad knew from previous experience. Brad ran a school near Columbine High School at the same time as the tragic 1999 school shooting. He ran the response team and they cut tons of ribbon, part of the way people mourned the event. He’d learned how to improvise this tool then. Another example of how life experience adds up in unexpected, but impactful ways.

It feels good to do the right thing

“At first, we thought this was going to a short-term effort,” according to Slavica. “And lo and behold, here we are three or four weeks later.”

The CSC team has already accomplished a lot and there is more come. So far, they have employed 26 people who were out of work, and have about 26 volunteers sewing at home. Orders are coming in fast. The masks are helping in multiple ways: individual health, keeping essential workers safe and working, and helping essential businesses stay open.

The program is still looking for more people, as some of those employed may be going back to work soon. The CSC expects demand for masks to increase. However, it’s clear that this team will be up to task of responding to what comes next.

“It just feels good to do the right thing,” concludes Slavica. The CSC came together because these people had a vision, as well as the skills and connections to make it real. The CSC was born from individual initiative and years of relationship-building between people, nonprofits and local businesses.

The organizers’ combined years of successful community organizing is truly making a difference. As they say, it takes a village, or in this case, a neighborhood, one full of experienced people who get things done.

Read more about other older adults using their experience and relationships to make a difference right now:

Frontline Housing – Diane D’Angelo and the members of Mountain Friends Meeting House
A Family Meal at The Delores Project – Luis Vasquez & family

Sara Breindel, Changing the Narrative blogger

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