Some people talk about Operation Warp Speed; others actually do it. Amidst the COVID-19 crisis three formidable women came together to make a difference. They brought an impressive coalition of individuals and partners along for the journey. Bringing masks to the community was their mission during this uncharted pandemic destination. Since its launch in March, the North Denver based Colorado Sewing Coalition has produced over 30,000 masks and paid over $150,000 in wages to some of our most vulnerable community members.
Councilwoman At-Large Debbie Ortega, a veteran civic leader and community-minded good neighbor, evokes the true meaning of building community. Her spirit of Northside Pride brings people together and she applies that deft skill-set to our rapidly growing city and the challenges it brings for communities of color. She simply gets things done. North Denver resident Slavica Park is originally from Bosnia; she is a dynamic advocate for human rights and social justice. Her prolific resume of education, workforce development, and social enterprise awarded her Denver Business Journal’s “40 under 40” for her work providing meaningful economic and social opportunities for Denver’s marginalized populations, especially immigrants and refugees. Rounding out the dynamic-trio is Jamie Giellis, the formidable mayoral foe that went toe-to-toe with Michael Hancock in 2019. She dedicates her work as president and founder of Centro Inc. to create community connections by bringing residents, businesses and developers together to define a shared vision of urban space and who it serves. She served as Executive Director of the RiNo Arts district, the largest BID (Business Improvement District) in Colorado. But, her sphere is wider than millennial hipsters. She advocates for underserved communities in Globeville, Swansea and Elyria, as well as targeting solutions for homelessness in Denver and hyper-local concerns like cleaning up Sloan’s Lake.
According to Ortega, “When Covid hit and people were suddenly out of jobs, a dream that Slavica and I had spoken about for two years became a reality. Our original intent was to create a sewing operation to provide opportunities for skilled sewers. Enter Covid-19, where everyone was scrambling for masks that were nowhere to be found leaving our front-line workers exposed to contracting the virus at a rapid rate. We knew instantly that we had to take action to meet the demand of those in need. We spoke on a Friday and by Monday we were in business.” Park rustled up a sewing workforce. Ortega identified community partners. Giellis helped mobilize volunteers, logistics and developed an online ordering system.
Park put her energy into the newly unemployed world coalescing a top notch team of women led by professional sewer, Marysola Menedez. ”We knew that some of our most vulnerable community members were losing their jobs due to COVID-19. To help solve the problem for many, we decided to launch Colorado Sewing Coalition and provided employment to over 26 individuals making a living wage at $15 an hour, as well as providing high-quality affordable masks to Denver Metro communities.”
From there it was a community affair. Reverend Brad Laurvick provided the space for the sewers at Highland United Methodist Church and acted as the fiscal agent to help process payroll and online sales. Mile High Behavioral Health and the Denver Public Library donated sewing machines and Arc Thrift Store contributed fabrics. Davis Tents cut the first patterns and provided the filter material for the 3 layered masks. Grants were funded by the City and County of Denver, as well as the state to help offset wages.
Slammed with thousands of initial orders from businesses that required PPE for their essential workers, ranging from RTD to Kroeger, to Councilman Flynn’s office on behalf of his district’s police and firefighters, the operation was in full gear.
From its earliest days of basic masks, the innovative sewers have come up with a wide variety of shapes, patterns and sizes for kids and adults. It’s like a candy store of masks that have evolved from “necessary evils” to fashion statements this fall. They are $5.00-10.00 ensuring that they are affordable, plus thousands are being donated to those in need. They can be purchased at “The Garage” in the parking lot across the street from Highland United Methodist Church on 32nd Avenue and Osceola Street every Sunday through September from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. The Little Man Ice Cream Company has also provided a venue at each of their five Denver locations throughout September. (See Facebook for times and venues). Purchases and donations can be made in cash or online at coloradosewingcoalition.com
For Ortega, she is dreaming big, “What does this look like going forward? How do we create entrepreneurial opportunities in a larger sewing operation that provides training and employment to many more in the community and expand our production to more than just face masks?”
Jamie Giellis sums up the spirit of this pandemic project, “As the pandemic swept over us and everyone was left struggling to figure out how to help, this idea emerged from Debbie and Slavica. Everything about it felt right – an opportunity to put people to work who needed it most, and an opportunity to provide a service to the community that was much needed at a time when masks couldn’t be found anywhere. I was there on day 1, sorting through bags of donated sheets and tee shirts and was honored to help it evolve into a full scale production. We were awed by the ability of our workers to keep improving the masks, and of the community’s support. This is a shining example of community collaboration – so many people stepped up with expertise and connections to pull things together in short order. I believe it is symbolic of what our community is capable of and I hope we continue to see more grass roots partnerships emerge to meet the needs of new and challenging times.”