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April 20, 2020, Flint, Michigan – Women in the Commercial Sewing program of St. Luke NEW Life Center are putting their training as seamstresses, their skills, and eight hours per day to good use: making cloth masks to keep the people of Flint and a variety of social service agencies and churches safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. It is also continuing its outreach to the most vulnerable in the community by offering food to those in need.
Since its founding in 2002 by Sisters Carol Weber, OP, and Judy Blake, CSJ, St. Luke NEW Life Center has served the needs of the people on the North Side of Flint, Michigan. Its Employment-Preparation program teaches job skills such as commercial sewing to “structurally-unemployable” residents of Flint.
The Center’s sewing business, in compliance with the stay-at-home executive order of Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, has put aside making its routine products, such as medical apparel. In its place, six of the Commercial Sewing employees have agreed to sew masks for organizations that order them for their staff and clients.
Sister Carol said she received a request for 1,000 masks from the CEO of the Mass Transit Authority (MTA) of Flint and Genesee County to keep staff members and passengers safe. They have since received orders for masks from businesses, churches, and social service agencies from as far away as Harbor Beach, Michigan.
The goal is for the women to sew 10,000 masks – including 7,500 that they will make specifically for the people of Flint, with material provided by a local foundation.
Sister Carol said some of the women sew at the Center, while others have opted to sew from home, enabling them to watch their children. Those who sew from home receive a weekly packet of material previously donated to the Center, thread, and elastic. At the end of each week, the women bring in the masks and receive a packet for the next week.
The women receive a weekly paycheck for making the masks, but the project means more to them than money. “The one thing I’ve heard them say over and over is, ‘I’m glad I can help somebody – that what I’m doing is helping somebody stay alive,” Sister Carol said.
“The project has brought us to a different level of awareness,” Sister Carol said. “When we talked about the people who are going to receive these masks, we decided that as a company we would be praying while we’re sewing for the people who are going to receive it and the people they’ll be working with.”
The St. Luke NEW Life Center is also serving as a food source for the people on the North Side of Flint. The Center purchases the food from a local food bank and, every Friday, distributes a bag of food – along with a bar of soap – to families who line up in their cars or on foot. “Last Friday they were lined up for four blocks,” Sister Carol said.
This is a new form of food distribution for the Center, which, before the outbreak of the pandemic, had served meals in the building, giving people a safe place to eat and to socialize. The Center has had to suspend that service because of the difficulty it would pose in social distancing.
But simply giving people food to take home without that safe place to eat has been a difficult adjustment, Sister Carol said. “One of the things we wanted over the years was that this be a place of safety,” she explained. “We’ve done so well that they want to get out of their cars and come here to congregate – and we have to tell them to stay in their cars. It’s very hard because this has always been a safe place for them.”
In light of COVID-19, Sister Carol said the Center has had to take much into consideration in its service to the people of Flint, both in food distribution and in the mask-sewing project. “We have to look at our people and our volunteers,” she said. “We have to keep them safe as well.” She noted that 95 percent of the people served by the Center are African American, a population with a disproportionately high rate of death from the virus.
The Center also takes special precautions in the commercial sewing work area. “We wash everything down three times a day,” Sister Carol explained. “Everybody has access to masks, and they’re close to bathrooms so they can wash their hands."
In spite of the complexities of reaching out to the most vulnerable in the Flint community, Sister Carol sees many reasons to hope. “We want to do our part in helping everybody we can,” she said. “It’s the prayerfulness that really governs our time together, not only to work but also to pray – and that’s a saving factor right now.”
Through the years, Sister Carol said, the people of Flint have learned to rely on each other, and COVID-19 confirms that interdependence. “We try to help as much as we can, and other agencies do, too,” she said. “We’re not standing alone in this at all."
Sister Carol hopes that the pandemic will change people for the better. “One of the things it’s taught me is how dependent we need to be on each other, and how positive people can be in the middle of a pandemic.”
The Center also appreciates help from the greater community. The NEW Life Center always needs donations of materials to help them sew the masks and other projects, as well as monetary donations to help with its many programs for the people of Flint.
April 14, 2020, Alexandria, Virginia – Sister Donna Markham, OP, PhD, President and CEO of Catholic Charities USA, speaks in an interview of the growing needs of people in the United States in light of the COVID-19 virus and the resulting economic downturn. She notes the needs of people throughout the country for food, medical care, and counseling for people who are afflicted or anxious because of the pandemic.
In addition, Sister Donna speaks of the need for personal protective equipment for CCUSA employees from its more than 160 agencies nationwide who are on the front lines, helping people in need at this time.
“I would humbly ask that you pray for our workers on the streets who are tending to millions of suffering people at great personal risk,” Sister Donna said in the interview with John Gehring of Commonweal Magazine.