LTHS teacher sews masks for healthcare workers

Fashion instructor, students pivot from pillows to vital equipment

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By Jackie Pisano

Contributing Reporter

At the beginning of the month, Lauren Gjini was leading her students at Lyons Township High School in a new project of creating chemotherapy support pillows for cancer patients in need.

Never did she think she'd be ending the month making an entirely different homemade hospital support good -- face masks for doctors and nurses working in the midst of a global pandemic.

Around the start of the new year, the family and consumer services teacher was approached by her colleague, Danielle Radzialowski, who told Gjini about her sister's upcoming chemotherapy at Advocate Christ Medical Center in south suburban Oak Lawn and the hospital's need for support pillows for cancer patients who sit hours on end receiving treatment.

Inspired, Gjini told Radzialowski she'd love to do what she could to help.

Gjini shared her vision of creating the pillows with the 80 students in her four fashion and interior design classes, and, from March 2-9, she and her students got to work, making as many chemotherapy pillows as they could.

By the end of the week, Gjini and her students whipped up 150 comfort pillows to donate to the hospital.

Just a few days later, cases of COVID-19 were springing up across the country. By the end of the week, on March 13, schools across the state, including LT, were shut down by executive order from Governor J.B. Pritzker.

The magnitude of COVID-19 caused worry not just in Illinois but across the U.S., especially as medical professionals have urged for sheltering in place prevent the spread of the virus amid fear that hospitals would become overwhelmed.

A few days into LT's eLearning days, Gjini was at home and received a call from Radzialowski, who told her that she recently spoke with a friend who works as a radiology technician at Comer Children's Hospital at the University of Chicago. The hospital is in desperate need of face masks, Radzialowski said, asking if Gjini knew of anyone who could make and donate some to the hospital.

Immediately after she hung up, Gjini sprang into action, driving to the craft store for fabric and elastic to begin making the masks.

That first day, she was able to make 12 masks. A few days later, she was up to 50.

"Given this opportunity to make masks, I knew it was a unique skillset that I could provide for the greater good," she said. "I have friends and family members that are healthcare professionals, and it's amazing how they are putting themselves on the front lines to save and protect others. I wanted to give back even a fraction of what they do on a daily basis."

Knowing she also had a friend sidelined from work who could sew, Gjini recruited the help of Danielle Baldocchi from northwest suburban Cary. As of March 22, Baldocchi was able to make 20 masks, which she will be helping Gjini ship to Comer for distribution.

Gjini was able to make another run to the store before Illinois' shelter-in-place order went into effect on March 21, purchasing whatever leftover fabric and elastic she could find.

"There was only so much elastic left in the store, as I believe others thankfully had the same idea of how they could help," she said. "I would need to continue to order supplies online now to help make more."

Additionally, Gjini put the call for help to her students, posting mask-sewing instructions on her classroom's webpage for those who have sewing machines at home and could help.

"Some give money, some give time, others can create," she said.

Through this project, Gjini hopes people in the community can be inspired to think about the unique skills they have and how they can put them to work during this time of great need.

"Nothing is too small when it comes to helping others get through this season," she said. "I have seen so many amazing stories of people getting creative and providing resources, information and positivity. It is beautiful to see how even when we are physically apart, we are coming together."

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