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Doctors wearing masks

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How a homegrown, garage-based project made a massive impact during a global crisis
July 14, 2021
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For nearly 100 years, Amalgamated Bank has been the bank for working people, standing up for workers’ rights while addressing intersectional issues of environmental, social, racial, and economic justice. Dollars deposited at Amalgamated are directly lent out to businesses and organizations that take corporate social responsibility seriously. The Amalgamated Charitable Foundation is our philanthropic partner that builds donor-advised funds and provides grants to those on the frontlines of social change.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the Amalgamated Charitable Foundation worked with donors and foundations to build the Families and Workers Fund which directs resources to essential workers and an equitable recovery. In 2020, this Fund distributed over $12 million in grants to essential workers and families in need. With a commitment from both the Bank and Foundation, the Frontline Workers Fund was also launched to address needs of essential workers serving communities across the country. The Fund provided support to nonprofits supporting workers in the labor movement and beyond to meet immediate needs. More than 60% of the resources went to directly supporting those hardest hit workers and communities.

Mission for Masks was one of the grantees of the Frontline Workers’ Fund. The initiative came from Sonja Schwartzbach (BSN, RN, CCRN), critical care nurse and author, Jess Jacobs, actor, writer, producer, and philanthropist, and two strategists, Sehr Thadhani and Callie Schweitzer. Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, these four women in the tri-state area collaborated to launch Mission for Masks and they had no idea how big an impact they would eventually make.

“It started out as just a few of us wanting to aggregate and share the stories depicting the realities of frontline workers in healthcare institutions,” said Jess Jacobs, co-founder of the initiative. “Sonja tapped into her network of nurses to collect these stories and over 3,000 healthcare workers wrote them, expressing deep and heart-wrenching fears and concerns... and above all, a lack of protective equipment.”

Thousands of stories from the frontline were coming in stressing the fact that workers were not being provided with the necessary PPE equipment to keep themselves safe from infection during this critical period at the height of a new pandemic. Hospitals and healthcare institutions were mired in bureaucracy and short-supplied at a time when their workers needed protection the most.

“The thing about stories is, they’re the most powerful empathy builders out there,” said Jess. “So, as I was reading these stories, I knew that I had to take any opportunity I could to help.”

The opportunity presented itself shortly thereafter. Someone reached out with contact information about a mask supplier directly importing PPE materials into the United States and Jess, Sehr, and Callie got to work using their connections and innovative strategies to ensure nurses and doctors had vetted PPE delivered directly to them. Mission for Masks was founded to facilitate the movement of equipment from manufacturers and importers directly to those in need, through hospital purchases, city and state partnerships, mutual aid groups, non-profits, and philanthropic donors.

“What started as an effort to collect stories anonymously from nurses and doctors on the frontlines became a grassroots operation to capture contact information for and requests from hospitals, institutions, and people in need of PPE,” explains Jess. “We were just responding to something that was immediate, obvious, urgent, and right there... people were telling us that our masks were protecting them from something that could be deadly. As someone who doesn’t work in a life-or-death industry, this was amazing.”

Mission for Masks was operated primarily out of Jess Jacobs’s garage. The four women each worked their normal day jobs and then would meet later to box PPE and strategize ways to get it to those who needed it the most. The main thing that kept them running was partnerships and donor funding. Jess, who had already held a donor-advised account with Amalgamated, mentioned her work with Mission for Masks to her contact at the bank.

“I remember when I had first heard about Amalgamated Bank, I was amazed,” says Jess. “I didn’t even know that a worker-owned bank existed! If more people knew that choosing a bank like this was an option, or if that was the norm, our economic system would work so differently.”

The focus on frontline workers’ needs and stories made Mission for Masks a perfect fit for the Amalgamated Foundation's Frontline Workers’ Fund. The Amalgamated Foundation quickly reached out to offer support through this fund.

“I was totally blown away and so honored,” said Jess. “It's one of those things that really stands for the fact that Amalgamated follows through by supporting the work that they believe needs to be done. That is so rare and so amazing to have the experience of trust and support from a bank that believed in what we were doing while we were still a very small initiative. We didn’t have the reporting capabilities of larger institutions, so it was a beautiful surprise, and something that really made a difference. The need was always greater than what we were able to provide, especially at the beginning of the pandemic, which is when the grant from Amalgamated came in, so it was like ‘wow, now we can protect more people, and save more lives.’”

Eventually, Mission for Masks collected a roster of over 300 groups across the country of frontline and essential workers, mostly nurses and doctors, to whom they were delivering PPE directly.

As the pandemic evolved and hospitals were able to provide PPE more sufficiently to their workers, Mission for Masks began to pivot their focus to another area of essential workers in need: election workers. Jess reached out and partnered with Civic Alliance and NASED (The National Association for State Election Directors) to help equip election workers with PPE to ensure a safe and healthy democratic election in 2020.

“The fact that our very rudimentary operation was able to achieve its goal and get masks to nurses and doctors and people in need in a time when it mattered so much was already a huge accomplishment,” says Jess. “Being able to be nimble and pivot to focus on the election was beyond our wildest dreams.”

Mission for Masks developed partnerships with other financial service providers such as PayPal and Venmo so that anyone opening their app would see Mission for Masks and would be able to send money to fund more PPE equipment for election workers. Eventually, they were able to protect election workers with PPE in Ohio, North Carolina, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Idaho, Alabama, and Texas, among other states across the country.

With the need for PPE declining, the project has also naturally begun to wind down and the four women have returned to focus on their normal jobs and careers.

“We feel we served our purpose when we were needed,” said Jess. “If there was ever an urgent need for a mission like that again, we would be happy to do it. But it seems like at least for now, we’re out of the woods.”

The Amalgamated Foundation continues to gather donations to be able to provide funding in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as other charitable initiatives. Find out more information on their website to support initiatives like these and become a donor.