Good Neighbors: Masks 4 Chicago

“Always look for the helpers. There’s always someone who is trying to help.” – Fred Rogers

Lauren Nepomuceno is director of communications and co-owner of XYZ Game Labs (ArchRavels, Inoka). Monica Paprocki is the head of Geeks A GoGo (PaxU goers will recognize her as the Banner Spear cosplayer from the Frosthaven booth.) Lauren’s talent for project management and communications and Monica’s for creating magic out of fabric and thread have found new purpose during the pandemic, making and distributing masks for first responders and essential workers throughout the Chicago area. I emailed Lauren for details about the project and what the game community can do to help.

What was the catalyst the brought about Masks for Chicago?

The catalyst for Masks 4 Chicago was my parents. My parents have a practice together and they’re internal medicine general physicians. They’re also human and because they’re cancer survivors they’re immunocompromised and over the age of 65 they’re at high high risk. Despite all of those circumstances they, like many others in the healthcare industry, will suit up and respond to their calling. I come from a lineage of medical doctors so for me personally, as a pre-medicine dropout, panicked stricken student who switched majors and life goals at the 11th hour, you can probably imagine me feeling a tremendous amount of guilt for not following my parents’ and my grandparents’ footsteps. Because my family group chats consisted of us yelling at our old aunts to stay home and URLs to medical papers, I was surrounded by all of the Covid-19 terror information early on. For weeks, I felt guilt, fear, worry, anxiety, despair. Masks for Chicago allowed me to take ownership of my feelings, the situation at hand, and to fight back for my family full of healthcare providers. I might have been a pre-medicine dropout, but dammit I know my worth and I know my strengths. Let me play to my strengths to fight this! 

What specifically are you doing for the community? 

My strengths are mobilizing people, managing complex projects, business strategy, and communications. Early on, I noticed that there will be issues with distribution, so I set up a PO Box that will allow for sewers to drop off masks and us to accept material donations. I also set up the system that we have today in order for us to operate smoothly through google forms. From this form we’re able to understand what our supply and demand is and how it is changing. Finally, I’ve been reaching out to facilities to get an accurate needs assessment. What is their exact quantity, what size (children vs. adult), and what other specifications. I’m also in contact with Healthcare provides and other non-profits in the Chicago area that have great needs assessment data on the hardest hit communities (Southside and Westside of Chicago). 

I was born and raised in Chicago and I love my city. I know these areas are hurting because of systemic racism and poverty that exist in these communities. They lack access to healthcare. They may be Domestic Violence survivors or lack a stable home so they’re in and out of shelters. Their environment and the cyclical socioeconomic issues that put them in this situation doesn’t allow for them to isolate physically. They’re the most at risk and disenfranchised which ends up putting strain to their community and the Health Care Providers (HCP) serving them. So I’ve been working with non-profits who serve that community to understand the exact number of Covid 19 patients so that we can begin prepping masks for the recovering and their caretakers. I also learn about which homeless shelters or nursing homes contain spikes in terms of cases. Neutralizing hot spot areas like homeless shelters drastically help the hospitals that are serving that area.   

How is the work accomplished?

Our Mask Heroes (Sewers) join our group. They must answer questions in its entirety to be added. Sewers make masks, they log their masks and whether the masks will be dropped off by them to a facility, sent to our PO Box, or if they want one of our drivers to pick up masks. We pick up masks on Saturday or Sunday so we ask them ahead of time to pick log/request pickup. After we pick up masks, we sanitize the packages. We run quality checks on the masks and categorize the masks by 1) Size 2) Material. Masks that are large enough to cover over n95 and are fabric ties (which are more durable), are prioritized to HCPs. Masks that are large enough to cover but Elastic are also prioritized to HCPs but can go to other locations as well. Masks that aren’t large enough at all we typically send those to non-HCPs, essential workers or disenfranchised communities that desperately need protective gear. After we have a count, we call facilities to verify quantities needed. Oftentimes demand is much higher than supply and we have to make tough decisions on who to supply to first. Typically my strategy here is to understand 1) number of positive covid cases 2) which area of Chicago they’re in. If they’re in a hot spot of Chicago, they may be bumped up in terms of priority.  

Do you think in general the game community has been stepping up community service in response to the pandemic?

 I definitely think they have! Parents are very grateful for Print and Plays (PNP) and I’ve shared PNP Arcade to a lot of parents trying to adjust to homeschooling. I’ve also shared a list of Board Game Geek’s family games list and I know for our fact our community is providing safe, indoor entertainment for thousands of families. One way the gaming community can step up more and it totally relies on if they have the capacity and capability to do so is: Keep on 3D printing ear guards. These doctors, nurses, and respiratory therapists are working 12 hour shifts 3-4 days a week. Their ears are bleeding from the elastic straps of  the N95. I’ve seen a lot of gamers making ear guards which protect HCPs ears from bleeding and it’s making a huge difference!  

Could other people start similar initiatives?

Of course! There are at least 4 groups in the Chicago-Area with a similar mission and structure. I recommend finding a specialty. If that specialty is 3D printing ear guards, make that your forte. If your specialty is sewing masks, lean into it. I don’t even know how to sew, but I’ve been helping out as much as I can. There’s always something you can do to help, it takes a lot of self-understanding and acceptance to know your strengths and play to them. 

How have people been receiving the idea? Have you gotten a lot of community support?

We’ve gotten amazing community support. At first, it was hard to build trust in sewers. They have no idea who I am and they were at first reluctant to just forfeiting masks to us. We had to build a lot of trust and go on Facebook live to make sure they know we’re real people with good intentions and we’re making data driven decisions.

 As for the dropoffs (which I personally do), they make everything we do worth it. I volunteer a lot. I built homes for Habitat for Humanity post-Katrina in New Orleans. I worked in an After-School Tutoring Program at a Salvation Army Center for all four years in college. I served on the Junior Board of the DV non-profit. I’ve mentored DV and sexual assault survivors, including a survivor of Larry Nasser. I even volunteered in the ER back when I was supposed to become a doctor. In all my experiences of community service work, I have never been more moved in my life than I have been with Masks4Chicago. We are truly in unprecedented times and everyone is so scared. I’ve had receivers crying because the community center for the blind and visually impaired desperately needed masks. I had a doctor who spoke to me and asked me similar questions like, “why do I do this? How am I doing?” We had a long conversation and then eventually the doctor asked me which charity I would give back to if I had to choose. I chose the domestic violence non-profit that saved my life and I told him that they have the only shelter in Chicago-area that serves both DV victims and their children because in most cases the children are sent to Department of Children and Family Services. The doctor texted me later that day that he donated $2020 in my honor. It’s been beautiful to see people lifting each other up in such time of need. 

What can people do to help you?

If you sew and are in the Chicago area, join our Facebook group or send people to Masks4Chicago.com. We also have an incentive program for our sewers by raffling off gift cards to those who dropped off masks that week. We’ve been accepting mainly material donations but if you want to donate monetarily for our gift card program reach out to Monica