By Jillian Risberg
It all started with an email chat on Millburn/Short Hills WorkMom group, where several healthcare professionals mentioned they were desperate for masks. “And somebody said, ‘Can’t we just make these’ and Reilly said, ‘Oh my Gosh, yes.’”
So they started researching CDC-approved patterns and materials.
“There was a suggestion to put an extra filter in the mask,” says the real estate broker. “Like when you make the mask for nurses and hospital staff it needs to be more than just fabric and they really like to use those Swiffer (dry dust cloths) ‘cause they are electrostatic, so that’s what we did.”
“I literally bought the town out of Swiffer,” she says. “People donated hundreds of Swiffers, fabric and elastic and I found nose guards that I could put in.”
David Merdinger, who owns a wholesale fabric supply (NJ Textiles) generously supplied them with hundreds of yards of fabric and elastic for masks and scrub caps, according to Reilly.
“We could not have done this without him,” she says. “He truly made all the difference.”
It was Merdinger’s wife who forwarded him Carisa’s email detailing what she was doing and he jumped right in.
“I saw it as an opportunity to help her, our community and our local hospitals,” he says. “I’m glad I was able to do my share. We have to thank Carisa for coordinating all the facets of this remarkable project.”
Several people in town had sewing machines but didn’t know how to use them.
“So we tried to organize, if you don’t know how to sew — donate fabric, cut fabric and elastic, assemble the pieces,” Reilly says. “It became very quickly a cottage industry, it was like managing a small factory remotely.”
That meant the real estate broker constructed the masks anywhere she could — in her basement, garage, bedroom, living room.
And she had help from her twin daughters, Madeline and Abigail and many devoted volunteers. The group collectively called themselves The Mask Makers for NJ Workers, who would drop off their finished products at Reilly’s house.
“Because at that point really what we were focused on was protecting our essential workers and our vulnerable people and our social services,” says The Mask Lady. “And we made hundreds for our civil servants in town and Department of Public Works and all of our municipal workers.”
Reilly says the community was amazingly supportive.
“There were maybe 10 of us sewing these at home and we were being told publicly it’s actually probably a really good idea (to wear a mask),” she says. “So I was an early adopter of wearing a mask.”
For most of us, it’s the first time faced with a global threat like the Coronavirus. When Governor Murphy abruptly stopped school for thousands of Garden State kids, Madeline spent the bulk of her spring break in the garage helping her mom make masks.
She says she doesn’t really feel safe.
“It’s still kind of dangerous to go out and stuff,” the 16-year-old says, with The Mask Lady adding that they’ve tried to be pretty careful.
“It’s been hard for everybody but especially for kids it’s really changed their lives,” Reilly says.
By the end of March, early April she realized they’ve got to employ seamstresses because trying to produce 50/masks a day on their own wasn’t going to cut it and there were healthcare workers who urgently needed them.
She reached out to Millburn Mayor Jackie Lieberberg, who offered her invaluable support. Next step was to raise $2,400.
“I put in $600 of my own money,” the real estate broker says. “In a week we had about $5000 or $6,000. That enabled us to crank them out. The goal was 1,200 (masks) in seven days. We did 1,200 in like 14 days and just had to keep doing them.”
According to Lieberberg, at the very beginning of the pandemic she had the opportunity to highlight folks who were doing exceptional work in town. That included Reilly, whose community-wide effort to make masks spanned the healthcare workers, first responders and those exposed through their dedicated work with the public.
“It took a village but Carisa hired the sewers, sourced the material, employed people,” the mayor says. “I mean it was incredible what she did — really singlehandedly, running around delivering fabric, people donating fabric, and she perfected her craft. With each batch it got better and better. They’re (the masks) unique; I give her a tremendous amount of credit and she has another day job.”
And it wasn’t just Millburn, says Lieberberg. The real estate broker’s face coverings also went to an underserved population that otherwise wouldn’t have had access to face masks.
“It’s very gratifying that her generosity had no boundaries,” the mayor says.
By Executive Order towards the end of April all essential workers and frontline workers had to wear masks and if you were in a store you were required to wear a mask.
“Now we have a whole new group of people who need masks and it was still really hard to find them,” Reilly says. “So we had to develop a different kind of mask because what we were doing for healthcare workers was very protective but also quite hot to have three full layers on your face.”
She and the Mask Makers felt they needed to regroup.
“So we came up with a completely different design that was two layers of fabric, lightweight, much easier to make,” says The Mask Lady. “And it was really important to me and still is to source as much as we could locally.”
They have produced more than 3,000 masks and scrub caps thus far. And she is involved in a Millburn/Short Hills volunteer gardening project, one more way The Mask Lady is giving back and making a difference.
Looking ahead, the real estate broker is also planning to take part in an initiative on Alignable.com called #mymoneystayslocal, which involves being a leader in the community to encourage people to support local businesses and services whenever possible.
She has a dedicated GoFundMe page and for further information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.