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Heroes at home

Collingswood women use sewing skills to help others during pandemic

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Collingswood women use sewing skills to help others during pandemic

Borough resident Nancy Lee Starrett has made hundreds of face masks – including the pictured pile – for donation since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Special to 08108)

Nancy Lee Starrett and Audrey DiUlio show you can be a hero from home, too, during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Using their compassion and sewing machines, the two Collingswood residents made protective facemasks from their living rooms.

“Back in March, when we were so impacted by COVID, I randomly posted on Facebook that I was feeling helpless and that I had a sewing machine and I wanted to help,” Starrett said, “so all my friends offered suggestions about contacting hospitals and then a friend of mine who is an ICU nurse at Cooper Hospital asked if I could sew surgical caps for her coworkers.

“So that’s how it all began.”

Obtaining fabrics was challenging when the retail shops were closed, but she purchased several yards of fabric online and used curbside pick up at Jo Ann Fabrics.

Collingswood resident Audrey DiUlio smiles at her sewing machine. DiUlio, along with fellow borough resident Nancy Lee Starrett, has sewn hundreds of face masks for donation during the pandemic. (Special to The Sun)

“I made 26 surgical caps for the ICU nurses, but I kept hearing about there being such a high demand for facemasks, so I kept searching on Facebook and finally found in April the PPE Sewing for COVID-19,” Starrett said about Angel Smith, the founder of the group. “I contacted her and at that point I had already start making facemasks for family and friends.”

Smith, of Cinnaminson, started PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) Sewing for COVID-19 on Facebook. The group has made thousands of masks, along with mask extenders and scrub caps.

“I was a member of a Collingswood-based community Facebook page, where someone mentioned the group in a post asking for sewers to join a group which was making masks for healthcare workers,” DiUlio said. “At the time, I was feeling so helpless and wanted so badly to help in a safe way, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity.

She not only worked from her home – COVID also hit close to home for DiUlio.

“A friend of mine, who is a healthcare worker, contracted COVID-19 in mid-spring,” said DiUlio, 34, a Content Marketing Consultant. “She and her family recovered, but I also had another friend who lost two grandparents within less than 48 hours to the virus.

“It made it feel more real to me, not just something you read about in the news.”

Although Starrett said she didn’t know anyone in her “immediate circle” who had COVID, that didn’t matter.

“The numbers show we’re all impacted even if we don’t know someone personally, it definitely has affected everyone,” Starrett said. “I really do feel honored. I have my sewing machine that I dusted off and I dusted off my skills. It just is giving me a purpose and I’m honored to do it.”

Byearly September, Starrett had made nearly 300 masks.

“I do them in batches, I do maybe 30 at a time,” she explained. “I do the cutting and the ironing and the sewing of the seams. I would say each one takes me from start to finish 15 to 20 minutes.”

Starrett, 72, worked at Rutgers Camden University for over 30 years in numerous departments.

“Because I’m retired, my world was traveling and going out for lunch and dinner with friends and family and going to the gym, going to the theater,” Starrett said. “By mid-March, that all went away, so this is giving me a purpose and I’m really honored to make a small contribution for those who put their lives at risk every day.”

DiUliofeels she hasn’t done enough.

“I’m so grateful that I was able to use my skills to help others, and every once in a while I wonder to myself who may have been protected from the virus thanks to a mask that I made, and I admit that’s a wonderful feeling and I can’t help but feel accomplished and proud,” DiUlio said.

“But I always still wish I could do more. To this day, I refuse to charge anyone who asks me to make a mask for them. For me, this has become a donations-only thing. Even after the demand dwindled in the healthcare field, I began looking into local daycares and preschools to see if they might need masks for their teachers or backups for students or visitors who may have lost or forgotten them. I just keep feeling like I could be doing more.”

By doing her bit, DiUlio has become more.

“I think this has given me the confidence to feel I can make a difference no matter what the circumstances may be,” DiUlio said. “At the start, I felt hopeless as I watched things unfold in front of me, but once I sat back and really looked at the ways that I could contribute, I realized that, even in the most extreme circumstances, there will always be something I can do to help.”

Starrett wants to do more.

“Over the years, I volunteered a lot and I think once this is over I may look into pursuing more volunteer work, so that way it has changed me,” Starrett said. “I’ve always been socially aware so that part of me hasn’t changed, but I think I will look back into volunteering.

“You can be putting your time to better use than just doing a jigsaw puzzle.”

KEVIN CALLAHAN
KEVIN CALLAHAN
Kevin, a published author of three novels, is in his 36th year writing sports, travel and outdoor stories, focusing in and around South Jersey and Philadelphia. After 33 years writing for the Courier Post, the 58-year-old embarked on a freelance writing career with the release of his trilogy – The Black Rose, The Fish Finder and The Chess Game in 2017.

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