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Sarah Pitre is staying busier than ever despite having had to close her shop, Stitch N Love, as she’s turned all her efforts to making protective masks to help combat the spread of COVID-19. With her assembled group of volunteers, she’s produced over 1,400 masks and donated over half so far.

Volunteers make hundreds of masks to donate

by Isabel Mosseler

A phenomenal thing is happening in West Nipissing. A business that had to close its doors because of COVID-19 has picked up the gauntlet to help people requiring facemasks. Sarah Pitre of Stitch N Love has a cohort of helpers sewing from their homes and has already donated over 700 facemasks to a variety of organizations throughout the province – and all these facemasks are made locally, in kitchens and bedrooms and sewing rooms of West Nipissing.

Sarah and her family are living in a beautiful mess right now, with piles of cloth and materials as the orders roll in and the masks roll out. She and her helpers are doing this while in isolation themselves, and people are so appreciative of their efforts that some have openly wept upon receiving the donated masks.

“We are busy!” enthuses Sarah. Some masks are also being ordered and picked up by individuals, but the majority are being donated. “They’re washable masks that have the bridge on the nose and a pocket for a filter. We donated around 750 so far, and with the purchased masks we just put the money back into the pot so we can buy more fabric to be able to donate more. We’ve donated them to Au Chateau, we’ve donated a couple to Le Taxi, the women’s shelters, the food bank, to people who have health issues, or those who might not be able to purchase them. We’ve donated to Les Filles d’Isabelle, and they donated some money as well. We’ve had quite a few donations, lots of fabric, and lots of people helping us to sew. We wouldn’t be able to donate if we didn’t have the team organized.”

That team is comprised of a number of people. “Lise Sauvé-Paquette from Sturgeon Falls is one of the founders with me. We started making the masks right when it all came out. From there, we started getting busy and we asked for help. We have people cut for us, and people who sew sections, and people who sew full masks. It’s all done at home. We closed our shop and we’re doing it all in our house; my house looks a mess!” she laughs.  She adds that her husband, Jason Pitre, has been her biggest supporter with cutting, sewing and “keeping me afloat”. Her donors and helpers include Roxanne Rochefort-Genesse, Kassidy Renaud, Trisha Deschamps, Josée Ethier, Sjanie Baker, Ally Huard, Diane-Andrée Quesnel, Annie Gauthier, Charlene Beeley, Kelly Wells, Natalie Larcher, Tina Brunet, Diane Boutin-Jenner, Ann Langevin, Lise and Josh Giroux, Suzanne Robert, and her kids Julianna and Joseph Pitre. Sarah emphatically stresses that it’s a team effort, and more volunteers are coming on board.

While Sarah is also selling masks and is intent on honouring all orders, at the moment the team is busy helping local healthcare agencies who have asked for their assistance. She is charging $10 apiece for the masks and there may be a 4 to 5 day delay to fulfill. “[People] can pick them up at the house – we’re doing porch pick-up here in Cache Bay. If someone is struggling to get a ride here, we are more than happy to deliver them as well, which we’ve done numerous times.” Sarah even makes different masks for men or women because, she notes, “not too many guys want to wear pansies on their face!”

For now, “the donated fabric has run dry,” so they are buying as they go. “All the fabric we are purchasing from Diane’s Creative Elements, 100% local,” she notes. “For sewing machines, we’re good. We have lots in the store, so if people want to sew and don’t have a sewing machine we have lots at the shop we can loan out.” Sarah relates that her shop, before she had to close, was shifting more towards decals, printing and embroidery, “but since I closed down I had to do something to keep busy and keep my mind off of possibly losing my business. So this is why I started doing this.” 

While some of the early online feedback was negative, making Sarah hesitant, the outpouring of encouragement and gratitude has kept her motivated. “The messages I’ve been getting are overwhelming. We’ve shipped to Guelph; we’ve shipped to Barrie, Sudbury, Chelmsford, Windsor, Oshawa.” Altogether, she estimates her crew has completed close to 1400 masks, with over half of those being donated.

At the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, the initial information was that people didn’t need masks. But subsequently news started to come out of Taiwan, China and Japan that wearing masks did, indeed, help. Then Canada’s chief medical officer, Dr. Tam, came forward and said yes, wear masks.  “I knew it was important,” Sarah says. “The first person we donated to was Dr. Desjardins in Sturgeon Falls. We donated 200 masks; he was almost in tears when we delivered because he knew from day one they would be needed. And that pushed me to keep going. I know that people think two pieces of cotton aren’t going to do anything, but it is absolutely going to do something, whether it’s to stop you from touching your face, or just the reassurance of someone sneezing next to you, that it prevents the droplets from going onto your face.”

The masks have a pocket built into them to place additional filter, such as a coffee filter.  “That’s what it’s for, whatever they want to put into it. Vacuum bags I wouldn’t suggest because (…) there are glass particles in some of the hepa filters and those can cause long-term lung damage. But coffee filters for sure – and if they want to feel extra cautious they can put some propylene material like a plastic barrier in it and throw it out when they are done. Just wash the masks normally and hang to dry so they don’t shrink.”

The Pitre family has experienced their own problems this past week. Their beloved dog died over the weekend. “We had such a sad weekend; he passed away in our arms on Saturday… It’s been rough – we have good days, we have bad days.” But the joy of helping others, and possibly saving lives in the process, sustains her. “My whole purpose for opening a business is that I love pleasing people. I love making people happy, creating those memories. I love interacting with people. I’m a real people person.” Sarah Pitre, her family and her helpers, have made a lot of people feel safer, and they have created an amazing cottage industry in West Nipissing that is helping people throughout Ontario.

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