‘Angel Stitchers’ Come to Rescue, Providing Thousands of Masks

(Photo Courtesy of Barbara Bisel)
At work at her sewing machine, Barbara Bisel distributes masks with the help of Lamorinda volunteers.

    Barbara Bisel personifies the slogan, “Find a need and fill it.”
    Learning of the dire need for face masks, she set out to supply them. She has personally made 982 masks, and her team has stitched 1,800.
    Bisel heard of the lack of masks from her friend, Susan Shelton, a nurse at Kaiser Permanente in Sacramento.
    “At first we were overwhelmed, so much need and so few supplies and what we had were diverted to the front-line staff, ICU and isolation units, leaving most of us unprotected,” Shelton said. “At first we couldn’t use homemade masks, but then since we had none, they were approved. That’s when Barbara stepped up and in an incredibly short time delivered enough masks to our department, the outpatient staff as well as outpatient chemotherapy.”
    As health care workers were able to obtain more masks, Bisel said she decided to focus on the most vulnerable populations where the virus could quickly spread. She contacted her rector, the Rev. Dr. Stephen Hassett of Orinda’s St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, who connected her with the diocesan prison chaplain.
    “I learned the prison population was a hotbed of COVID-19,” Bisel said. “The Freedom Center needed 400 masks for formerly incarcerated people re-entering the community, and the staff which supports them. Immediately, I said ‘yes’ wondering how I could do it.”
    A post on Nextdoor brought the answer as 24 people stepped up to help. Soon Bisel was driving to the Freedom House, an apartment building in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District.
    She also has taken masks to the Bay Area Rescue Mission, which serves the homeless in Richmond, a prison chaplain, the Monument Crisis Center (MCC) in Concord where she left 400 masks, the Family Bridges Senior Center in Chinatown where 200 masks were supplied, and the Moraga Royale, an assisted living facility.
    Bisel named her group the Lamorinda Angel Stitchers because women pick up materials from her porch, and leave completed masks a few days later.
    “I don’t see or meet them so they feel like angels to me. But I do hear comments from them that it feels good to do something tangible to help. We have no idea what impact we are having, but I think we could have saved a few lives and reduced the virus’s spread,” Bisel said.
    One of the team, Betsy Donally, said making masks during quarantine has proven to be a better use of time than reading or watching TV.
    “As I work, I think of the recipient of the mask and hope they will realize this is a handmade gift. Each mask contributes to public health and enables the wearer to perform essential errands. I enjoy the craft, while looking forward to the day when masks are no longer needed!” she said.
    Bisel makes it easy for the Angel Stitchers by providing all the materials for a mask kit, which includes cotton fabric, Pellon interfacing and elastic. Each kit makes 20 to 30 masks.
    As the project grew, Bisel decided to fund the material by selling masks. St. Stephen’s has created a Food for Families program, responding to the urgent and long-term food need at MCC. That committee is buying food in bulk at very low prices from Grocery Outlet. She has been able to donate $1,000 seed money from sales of masks for this program and estimates she will be able to give at least another $2,000.
    The cash donation provided food to more than 300 families and seniors, according to Sandra Scherer, Monument Crisis Center director.
    About the masks, Scherer said, “They are expertly made, unique in color and pattern, and so appreciated. It is a huge gift to our struggling clients who don’t have access to safety masks and desperately need them. Being able to show colorful designs to a client and let them chose the one they like, is a delightful moment in these difficult times. They feel better and safer and we can feel their smile.”
    When she is not making masks, Bisel is an independent stylist for a clothing line. She also was a full-time volunteer at the Moraga School District for the past five years costuming Campolindo’s musicals.
    “Making masks is not that much different, but for a very different population.” She said. “I care deeply for the vulnerable of our area.”
    To order masks ($12 each), contact Bisel at bsmithbisel@gmail.com.

(Barbara Bisel, Photographer)
Moraga Royale staff members Lots Rickman, Al Pyne and Emmanuel Cabrera don face masks provided by Barbara Bisel.

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