Since coming home in early March from deployment in Kuwait, U.S. Army Specialist Awilda Quezada Puntiel ’18 continues to serve her country – these days with an army of Americans sewing masks to fight the spread of the coronavirus.
The mask makers, which include Fashion Studies alumni and students, are a bright spot amid the global pandemic, their sense of duty and colorful cotton creations shoring up the medical front lines running low of personal protective equipment.
Making the masks has been therapeutic for Quezada, who says it gives her a renewed sense of purpose. She left Kuwait just before the coronavirus outbreak prompted the U.S. military to order troops scheduled to return home to stay where they are.
While grateful to be home, Quezada says the crisis and self-isolating left her feeling disconnected – until she answered the call from a college friend who knows Quezada can sew, asking her to unpack her sewing machine.
“She was an angel,” Quezada says, referring to Lexi Nelson ’17, her friend from the Fashion Studies department at Montclair State University. “She got me off my couch.”
Nelson is associate director at Visiting Angels of Ramsey, a senior care agency. Located in Bergen County, the epicenter of New Jersey’s coronavirus, she responded to the urgent need for masks to protect both caregivers and the elderly, and at hospitals, for the nurses and doctors burning through their supplies of protective gear.
Across the country, sewers are sitting at their machines with patterns for the handmade masks. In hospitals, they are being used to extend the life of medical-grade masks, which would typically be disposed of after a single patient. Support staff, nursing homes and first responders also welcome the homemade versions since medical masks increasingly aren’t available.
Quezada wasn’t surprised when Nelson reached out with the idea for alumni and current students in Fashion Studies to join the sewing efforts. Nelson “was always the business guru,” Quezada recalls of their group assignments at Montclair State. “She was the one who would always be able to come up with ideas and actually bring them to life.”
In less than a week, Quezada had stitched more than 150 face masks. Sarah Wyatt ’17, a visual merchandiser for CB2 furniture, is making masks as well, inspired to join the efforts because her roommate works at a hospital where masks are being rationed.
“I want to try to push out as many as we can to help out,” she says.
Brianna Cesaro, a senior Fashion Studies major, has been working on the masks for up to 14 hours a day, her brother helping by attaching labels. She’s distributed most of her handiwork to the local EMT team in Kenilworth, New Jersey.
“It feels great to be able to help those who are putting their lives at risk for us,” she says. “I want to make their jobs easier and let them know that we stand behind them and that they are not alone.”