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How Three Local Women Became COVID Heroes

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Photo by Tessa Marie Images

Nelle Bush, Lindsay Gradel, and Mary Beiter put their sewing skills to use to help frontline workers and the community.

For Nelle Bush, the first few weeks of April were a blur of fabric, elastic, thread, and DMs. It started with her Facebook posts on March 21, the day Gov. Tom Wolf announced stay-at-home orders for parts of the region. Already known for her eponymous line of cosmetic bags, purses, and accessories, which she sews from her Havertown home, Bush announced that she had the know-how and materials to make non-surgical face masks recommended for COVID-19 mitigation. Within hours, she had hundreds of requests. “The messages kept rolling in,” says Bush. “Everyone was scared and very unprepared.”

Over in Narberth, Lindsay Gradel dipped into her stash of remnant fabric, following online guidelines to make COVID face masks. “Everyone started to freak out at about the same time,” says Gradel, owner of Sew Much Cooler, a line of handmade children’s clothes. “My husband said, ‘What are you going to do?’ I said, ‘I’m going to sit down and sew.’”

Skippack’s Mary Beiter had the same idea. A maternity nurse for 30 years, Beiter was spending her quasi-retirement designing window treatments for her burgeoning business. Like Bush and Gradel, Beiter had fabric on hand and knew how to sew. On March 21, Beiter created a Facebook group to organize volunteers interested in making masks for frontline workers. “I decided to have a mission statement to be clear what we were doing—making face masks and donating them to healthcare workers, caregivers and first responders at no cost,” Beiter says.

Bush and Gradel were doing the same thing. Nurses and their loved ones were sending urgent messages asking for masks. “I couldn’t believe what they didn’t have,” Gradel says.

Nelle Bush with her dog, Sadie.

“I cried sometimes hearing the stories of people who needed masks,” adds Bush. “These people were saving lives and putting their own at risk. They needed masks. I had the ability to make them. It was as simple as that.”

Gradel and Bush spent 14-hour days at their sewing machines. Bush’s four children either occupied themselves or helped with sewing, order fulfillment and packaging. By mid-April, Bush had sewn more than 1,000 masks and donated them to healthcare workers at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Lankenau Medical Center, Bryn Mawr Hospital and Temple University’s COVID surge hospital at the Liacouras Center. Most of the donations went to nurses who wore them over their N-95s to prolong the viability of the medical-grade masks.

With three young children, Gradel recruited her mother to watch her kids while she sewed, donating more than 1,000 masks to healthcare workers at nursing homes and hospitals throughout Delaware, Montgomery and Philadelphia counties. Each frontline worker got two masks, but there were requests for different versions of them, including the kind that tied around the head and those that fastened around ears with elastics. “There are so many levels in the medical field and healthcare workers needed different kinds of coverage,” says Gradel.

Meanwhile, Beiter was leading an army of volunteer mask makers. Met with an overwhelming response to her Facebook group request, Beiter created packages of fabric and elastic. Each package had the materials to make 50 masks. Through a no-contact system, volunteers picked up their materials in Beiter’s garage, headed home and sewed, following a demonstration video Beiter made. When they were finished assembling their 50 masks, Beiter distributed them to healthcare workers.

Beiter had set a goal to make 1,000 masks. Her group met it on March 26—and they kept working. “We were at home, we knew how to do this, and there was a need,” Beiter says.

With the 160 active members in her Facebook group, Beiter made over 19,000 masks, donating all of them to frontline workers. Some requests were for six masks, some for 400. With the help of her husband and daughters—and eventually a delivery team—Beiter distributed masks to 107 hospitals, 92 nursing homes, 38 homecare facilities, 12 doctors’ offices, 22 fire and rescue squads, and 53 other healthcare centers in Chester, Bucks, Delaware, Luzerne and Philadelphia counties. “Together, we did something good,” Beiter says. “We also did something good for ourselves. It gave us a purpose during this bad time.”

Bush says the mask making was exhausting but oddly therapeutic. “When the pandemic hit, I felt so helpless,” she says. “This was a way for me to give back using the skills I have.”

When demand for homemade masks subsided by mid-May, Beiter retired her team of volunteers. Gradel and Bush segued into making masks for non-frontline workers. As the region slowly started reopening for business, people ventured out of their homes, and demand grew for effective but fashionable masks. Gradel and Bush were once again inundated with orders. A U.S. Navy veteran, Gradel likened the experience of those early months to being at sea. “We were isolated in our homes, but connected because of the mission to help other people,” she says.

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