When Covid-19 struck the Garden State, JoAnn Gregoli and Christine Preston heard about the plight of frontline workers, who were in desperate need of face masks and other protective wear. Hoping to help, they cofounded Front Line Sewing Angels, a nonprofit that creates and distributes hand-sewn masks and surgical caps to health workers and others in need.
As the pandemic continued, Gregoli, a Sparta resident and mother of six, and Preston, a Madison mom of 3, recognized another issue. Each of the women has a child with a hearing impairment—neither of whom could understand what their mask-wearing moms were saying.
“We thought ‘Oh, my God, our own kids are not even understanding us,’” Gregoli says. “For them, it was like their world was closing in all over again. We knew we had to do something.”
Gregoli, a wedding planner, and Preston, a public-relations manager and political activist, developed prototypes of masks that would allow the wearer’s mouth to remain visible. They made sure the mask model was breathable, and safe to wear for people who use hearing devices such as cochlear implants. The result is a design cleverly called Read My Lips, made mostly of 100-percent cotton fabric, with a see-through vinyl insert that rests over the wearer’s mouth. Speech therapists and healthcare workers say the masks, in addition to helping the hearing-impaired, have the benefit of showing the wearer’s smile.
Since the Sewing Angels ramped up production, volunteers in New Jersey and several other states have churned out more than 25,000 standard masks and several hundred see-through masks. Most are donated to frontline workers or facilities/individuals in need of protective equipment. Gregoli expects demand for the Read My Lips masks to increase with awareness.
The organization is donating 60 masks for teachers and speech therapists at the Summit Speech School, a facility in New Providence that educates and empowers those with hearing loss. The school will also receive a gift of traditional masks for their students, who range from toddlers to teens.
Mary Baumont, executive director of the school, says that the clear front portion of the masks will help give students the visual information necessary for communication. “It makes a big difference,” Baumont says. “Not only for kids with hearing loss, but even kids who may have auditory processing complications, or maybe for whom English is not [a] first language.”
Both masks are available for purchase via the Sewing Angels’ website or Facebook group. The Read My Lips mask sells for $15; the traditional mask for $10. All proceeds go to the mask production fund. Sewing Angels also accepts donations through a GoFundMe page.