When Tracy Sesselberg of Cape Elizabeth started making a few masks for her friends, she had no idea it would turn into a huge project – almost a full-time job. “I started making a couple of masks at the end of March, 2020. I figured I’d make a few for friends or just donate them to anyone who asked, and it just kind of exploded!” Sesselberg said.
“The Fabric Warehouse in Lewiston was putting together kits with enough elastic and pre-cut fabric to make 25 masks that you could buy just for the cost of material, without any markup. So, I bought the kits and made the 25 masks. They were gone within 24 hours. That’s when I realized that there was a real need for masks, and I guess that’s when it turned into a full-fledged project.”
Last March and April, cotton fabric and elastic were hard to come by, so Sesselberg issued an appeal on social media. Friends donated fabric and Fabric Warehouse donated elastic. She said, “I never thought I’d ever use it all.” (She did!). “I’m so grateful to them! Every day there was exponential growth in how many people were asking me for masks. I gave them away faster than I could make them.”
Sesselberg knew there was a great need for reusable masks among the immigrant communities in Maine. Compared to its impact on white residents, COVID-19 had a much more severe impact on immigrant communities. Early in the pandemic, one in four cases in Maine was in communities of color. “When Maria Cushing [who is originally] from Cape Verde saw my post, saying I had masks to donate, she reached out and asked me if I could make some for the immigrant communities in Maine. I was very happy to jump on the opportunity.” Sesselberg sewed over 200 masks, which were distributed among vulnerable communities in Portland. She noted her very personal connection with the African diaspora, as her daughter is adopted from Ethiopia.
Cushing, who has been in Maine since 1980, called Sesselberg “a community pillar.” Cushing said, “When the pandemic was growing in Maine, I reached out to Tracy with the copious amount of fabric I had collected, and with donations of elastic from others. She went above and beyond.” Cushing distributed the masks Sesselberg made to Djibouti and Congolese community leaders, as well as to coworkers and people experiencing homelessness. In Brockton, Massachusetts, a city near Boston with a population that is 25% Cape Verdean, more than 200 immigrants died over the course of a few months. “Tracy wanted to help out in any way she could, and she made about 200 masks for my community in Brockton,” Cushing said.
“I have a background in public health research and epidemiology, but right now I’m a stay-at-home mom,” said Sesselberg. “With my epidemiology background, I wanted to do more to help.” Her husband is a physician who came home from the hospital every day telling her they didn’t have enough protective equipment or enough masks, and were fearful of the future. “I realized my sewing skills could come in handy, and since my kids were doing remote learning, I started making masks in my free time,” she said, often working on the masks from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Once summer arrived and cotton fabric and elastic became available for sale again, Sesselberg began buying material instead of relying on donations. “At that point, I started selling my masks, since I was buying all the fabric myself.” She opened MyrtisAndBaa, an Etsy shop, where she now sells masks alongside other hand sewn items. However, Sesselberg intends to continue donating masks to members of immigrant communities and people without homes, as long as there is a need.