Covid Heroes: Lansing's Warriors Honored

Jessy Rae: Threads of compassion

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A pandemic of heroism

Like everyone else on the planet, the top three City Pulse’s COVID-19 heroes hope like hell this will not turn into an annual event. But there is a silver lining in the cloud of horrors that descended upon the globe in 2020. The pandemic and its economic consequences have spawned millions of heroic acts of kindness, compassion and empathy everywhere, and greater Lansing is no exception.

Last month, City Pulse asked readers to nominate individuals and organizations they consider heroes in the fight to cope with and defeat COVID-19. Then we asked readers to vote on them.

It seems almost arbitrary to acknowledge three people out of so many, but each of our top three vote getters — mask making fabric store owner Jessy Rae, bill-paying do-gooder Mike Karl and Michigan’s stalwart Gov. Gretchen Whitmer — are neighbors to be grateful for.

Let their stories serve as a modest tribute to a bigger spirit, to the innumerable health care heroes, teachers, delivery people, mail carriers, burger flippers, and so many others who are keeping the flame lit in a dark time.

Among this legions of heroes large and small are the other nominees: Julie Davis, a preschool teacher at Capital Area Community Service Head Start; Jane French, a large animal veterinary technician; the MSU 3D PPE Maker team; Scott Rolen of Lou & Harry’s; Kristi Schneider, an ER nurse at Sparrow Hospital; Julie Stephenson, a crisis therapist at Clinton-Eaton-Ingham Community Mental Health; Pamela Vandervest, a clinical laboratory scientist at Sparrow Hospital; and Tracey Lynn van Duesen, a clinical therapist. Now let’s not do this again soon.

An underground legion armed with fabric, needles and thread is up to its elastic ear bands in the biggest challenge it’s ever faced.

Jessy Rae, the owner of SEAMS fabric store in East Lansing and the top vote-getter in City Pulse’s COVID Heroes, is at the center of a web of volunteers making tens of thousands of masks for health care workers, at-risk people and ordinary folks.

The sudden need for facemasks, now mandatory in indoor public spaces and in crowded outdoor spaces in Michigan, pulled on a lot of human threads in 2020, from public health policy to supply chain chaos to joyful self-expression.

“There’s a lot of people in our country, and it’s going to be a while until we can be comfortable out in public again without something covering our faces,” Rae said.

Years from now, kids and grandkids will likely find them in closets and ask questions. Some of the masks are destined for museums.

“It’s definitely a unique little moment in history,” Rae said. “It’s a pretty amazing effort to be a involved in, just in terms of the outpouring of community love that’s happening.”

When retail was shut down in early March, Rae wasn’t sure whether to close her year-old shop or set up delivery and curbside service. She hunkered at home with her three kids and a supply of fabrics and other items rescued from the store.

About that same time, half a dozen friends sent Rae a link to a social media post: Deaconess Hospital in Colorado was putting out the call for community members to sew masks for its staff.

Even before COVID, Rae knew the tight-knit community of crafters could mobilize fast — especially if the cause involved an adorable animal. When wildfires raged though Australia, “craftivists” around the world swung into action, knitting mittens for burned koala bears.

“There was another thing about an oil spill clean up in the Arctic, penguin sweaters or something,” Rae said.

It’s easy to scoff, but there is something deeply compelling about doing something about something, especially with your own two hands.

“People who aren’t crafters don’t realize how productive people can be when they put their minds to it,” Rae said. “Almost immediately, it was, ‘Whoa, stop sending koala mittens, we’ve got way more than we need.”

But there is no “stop” in sight where COVID-19 is concerned. The growing acknowledgement in the public health community that masks help stem the spread of COVID-19 offered a rare lifeline between helplessness and help. Global crafter mojo met its ultimate match.

Masks, masks, masks

Rae quickly found herself poised between the pent-up energy of an army of crafters and a specific, almost infinite, public health need. The same evening she learned of the call for help from Deaconess Hospital, she got a message from a local agency that needed masks for home health care workers.

“At that point, you couldn’t purchase PPE anywhere,” Rae said. “We were the latest country to have the virus take hold, and every country before us had consumed high quantities of PPE. The supply chain was backed up all the way to China and you just couldn’t get it.”

Fabric masks aren’t perfect barriers, but health care workers were looking for a way to make scarce N95 masks last longer. The first wave of masks made by Rae and other crafters served as protective covers that could be cleaned and re-used. Other fabric masks went to home health care providers, nursing homes and other secondary health care agencies.

Rae was stuck at home anyway, so she pulled more of her stock, including all of her elastic, from the store and started distributing it to volunteers.

As March turned into April, she could barely keep up with the growing list of agencies that needed masks.

“We started with a spreadsheet, but it was so hard to update it that we gave up on that and I just started personally fielding requests,” she said.

Some 300 volunteers in all went to work.

When supply began to catch up and demand for clinical PPE passed its peak, the design of choice shifted from the fitted N95-cover-style masks, to what she calls the “second wave” of masks, the commonly seen pleated rectangle with elastic ear loops.

Rae donated the materials at first, but the numbers got so large she began to take large and small cash donations. A fundraiser by Peppermint Creek Theatre Co. brought in $6,000. When state Rep. Julie Brixie contributed $500 for masks for low-income families, Rae coordinated distribution with the Lansing School District’s free lunch program.

By now, thousands of masks — an estimated 16,000 — have gone to community service organizations like the Allen Neighborhood Center, Community Mental Health and its affiliated group homes. Rae sent 900 masks to Midland when the dam broke there, using up every mask she had up until then.

At the same time, Rae compiled a list of “sewists” (the term “sewers” is discouraged, for obvious reasons) who could make and sell masks to people who could afford to buy them.

“Every person that depends on summer craft fairs for income has been sewing all winter, and now they’re out of a job, because all of those festivals were cancelled,” Rae said.

Masks have taken over a lot of boutique fabric businesses. “You can’t measure somebody for a custom garment because you can’t get close to them,” Rae said. “I know a vintage clothing creator for Etsy who has been sewing nothing but masks for the past two months.”

Global theater

In Jessy Rae’s shop is a bottle of high-grade hand sanitizer given her by a unit at Sparrow Hospital as a thank-you for the masks. “It’s basically ultra-distilled vodka from Michigrain Distillery,” she said. “Drink it and it will kill you! The funny thing is, it’s what we used to sanitize costumes in theater, between shows, so it’s another way I’ve come full circle.”

Before she got caught up in the global costume drama of COVID-19, Rae got involved in costume design while growing up in Moorehead, in northwest Minnesota, next to Fargo, North Dakota. For a few summers she helped to outfit some major productions for a summer theater series at Trollwood Performing Arts School and did a lot of costume work for high schools, but quickly had second thoughts.

“I realized I didn’t want to work with actors the rest of my life,” she said, with a shrug that seemed to add, “Sorry, but it’s the truth.” Besides, the format was a bit too structured for her.

“I wanted to be a little bit freer, a little more self-expression.” She remembers cranking out a heap of black skirts and aprons for a production of Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible.”

“He writes a good yarn — probably prescient for the times we’re living in right now,” Rae said.

Her fine art professors at tiny Hamlin University were old-school men who didn’t have much use for fabric art. Rae studied bronze casting and intaglio printmaking, but worked in the costume shop for extra money.

After college, she moved to East Lansing and worked for six years at Country Stitches, a traditional quilt shop and fabric store. She balanced the straight gig by concocting elaborate textural quilt and fabric hangings she sold at regional art festivals and galleries.

She moved into the space at SEAMS, next to Woven Art, in April 2019, with only 60 bolts of fabric, after teaching classes from home. Rae’s friend, Meg Larned Croft, owns the Woven Art studio next door to SEAMS. The two of them are living out a fantasy of setting up a “textile district,” combining Rae’s textiles and Croft’s yarns.

Rae juggles the store with her other gig as an East Lansing City Councilwoman. On Tuesday nights, before Council meetings, a shop assistant takes care of the store.

“That’s so I can have my three hours of Zen, go through the agenda and mentally prepare myself,” she said.

The third wave

As June turned into July, Rae thought the demand for masks would peak, but impending school reopening chaos and continued spread of the virus make a “third wave” all but inevitable.

A sewist from Eaton Rapids who works with Rae on mask distribution is already fielding requests from Eaton Rapids, Charlotte and Mason schools for more than 1,500 masks.

“School in the fall is such a gray area,” Rae said. “Nobody knows what’s happening, but a couple of Lansing schools have already contacted one of our volunteers about doing masks for the kids.”
Rae estimates, at minimum, her network of volunteers and collaborators will make 10,000 masks by the start of school.

It will be harder to meet this challenge, because many volunteers have gone back to their jobs and have less free time.

“There were a lot of people trapped at home, feeling helpless, and this was something they could do,” Rae said.

Friday, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer likely increased demand for masks by putting some bite into the state’s mask rules, mandating indoor use in public spaces, requiring retail stores to enforce masks and setting a $500 fine for violation.

Rae is still donating materials for pick-up. A plastic case on a table just outside the store is piled with plastic bags that of fabric, elastic and other materials — enough to make 50 masks for each bag.

“Just don’t sell them,” she said. “That’s all I ask.”

There have been unexpected problems along the way. Health care workers who have to work in masks all day can get severely chafed ears from the elastic. Craftivists came up with the idea of attaching the elastic to “ear saver headbands” equipped with buttons, but the supply of buttons nearly dried up in April.

“Every new thing taxes the supply chain in a new way,” Rae explained. “First you couldn’t get elastic. Then you couldn’t get buttons.”

To fill the gap, some local middle school kids with a lot of time on their hands have been 3-D printing buttons for Rae’s network of sewists.

The bags of supplies in the box outside the shop contain plastic tools, 3-D printed by volunteer kids, for making the lace-like ties that substitute for elastic in some masks.

Things for dudes

Rae is sticking to simple, inexpensive fabrics for the donated masks, but the COVID era has sparked a burst of creativity among her customers.

“People are coming in to the store wanting really exciting fabric for their own personal masks, because they see that we’re going to be wearing them for quite a while,” she said.

A beekeeper chose a fabric swarming with bees. Nerdy nurses gravitated to DNA helix patterns. The store is filled with crazy prints Rae wouldn’t normally stock, from hedgehogs and baby Yodas and an over-the-top print of shirtless, manly hikers and hunters strutting around in a canyon.

“People are suddenly asking for things for dudes,” she explained, “so I’ve ordered some fabrics I wouldn’t normally carry.” Socially distancing farmers’ market vendors snapped up lurid kale, radish and carrot patterns.

Just don’t ask for plain black.

“We still can’t get black fabric,” she said. “It’s backed up all the way to China. Nobody has black.”

One more upside of the mask era is that is has sucked a lot of people into sewing for the first time and brought them a skill they’ll enjoy the rest of their lives.

“They’re comfortable with their sewing machines now,” Rae said. “If you had told me in February that there would be some international trend that would get people sewing again, I would be thrilled,” she said. “This is not exactly what I was hoping for.”

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