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‘Ministry both ways’: Volunteers find community in sewing masks for South Bend schools

| Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Elizabeth Burman has been stitching together PPE since the beginning of the pandemic.

“I could probably sew a mask in my sleep,” she said.

Starting as a lone seamstress who volunteered with local charities, Burman has since tapped into the tri-campus community and organized the production of over 4,500 face masks for South Bend schools.

Burman moved to Notre Dame three years ago to accompany her husband, Thomas Burman, the Robert M. Conway Director of the Medieval Institute. She quickly joined the ranks of the Ladies of Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s College (LNDSMC). The organization dates back to 1934 and consists of many faculty members and their spouses.

“I got involved with them for social events, and I found a couple of people who like to sew while I was working with them,” Burman said. “So when this opportunity arose, they were the first people I reached out to.”

Courtesy of Elizabeth Burman

Elizabeth Burman began sewing masks solo during the pandemic. Now, she is working with several friends and organizations to sew nearly 5,000 masks for students in South Bend schools.

Burman was inspired by a sister organization, Elkhart County Student Masks, which set a goal to sew over 26,000 masks for Elkhart schoolchildren. She said she wondered whether South Bend schools might also need masks, and they did. In total, 10 different South Bend Community School Corporation schools requested face masks. Burman started by canvassing the LNDSMC, but by June, the effort was quickly growing outside the club.

“It started with us. We got our initial stash of fabric and a couple of people willing to sew, and then just reached out to other members of the community,” she said.

As a result, a new group was born: Face Masks for South Bend Students.

Cather Craker, adjunct professor at Holy Cross and in the Westville Prison Program, heard about Burman’s initiative at the church they both attend. Since then, she estimates that she has sewn between 175 and 200 masks, either with her machine or by hand.

“Mostly I do sewing, and lately I’ve also been cutting out the no-pleat mask kits,” she said.

Her children help with the most crucial role of all — picking the fabric patterns.

Jennifer Staats and her husband both attended Notre Dame and live locally. Staats, like Burman, started making masks on her own but soon got involved with local sewing groups. Burman approached her in June, and the women worked together to solidify logistics for the group.

Staats said their group’s kits are intuitive and fun.

“The mask assembly process is simple, even for a novice,” she said in an email. “When you get the kit, you have all the pieces measured and cut, ready to sew. It’s so easy, and it’s fun to see what cute new prints will be in each kit.”

Christopher Parker | The Observer

Jennifer Staats, who is sewing masks for students with Burman, said they have created do-it-yourself kits for those in the community who want to help.

Burman said her jobs earlier in life had taught her one thing about big volunteer campaigns.

“Always partner up. We partnered up as fast as we could,” she said.

Burman applauded Busy Hands of Michiana, a volunteer group who sewed over half of the masks. Other partners on the project included the Cathedral of St. James, Sew Loved Inc., the South Bend Community Schools Corporation and The Christ Child Society.

Anyone interested in helping to make a mask can join the Facebook group, Face Masks for South Bend Students. Volunteering can entail cutting and organizing materials, delivering kits or sewing. People of all skill levels and genders are welcome.

Helping others while helping themselves, Burman called it “ministry both ways.” In a time of isolation, she said, she was able to form a community and make friends with people she has never met in person.

“Having a project like this that we can work on together has been important to me, and I gather it has been so for the others,” she said.

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