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With the help of Heights neighbors, small business able to sew thousands of masks for hospitals, US Navy and schools

Kit, a custom dress-making business with a few refugee tailors, asked neighbors for help filling requests for donated masks early in the pandemic.

HOUSTON — A pair of FDA-approved coronavirus vaccines are providing a glimmer of hope that the U.S. may be nearing the end of this pandemic. The goal is that sometime, sooner than later, we will no longer need to wear masks when out in public and that we can reflect on 2020 as a moment in history. When that day comes, the hope is that stories of our Heroes Nextdoor, like Merin Guthrie and Jan Hawkes, are what we as a community remember first.

“We are kind of an old-school dress maker,” said Guthrie who owns Kit. The small business in The Heights has been around for more than five years. A small team of professional tailors is staffed with refugees and led by Guthrie. 

In March 2020, “I received an email from a friend of mine in high school who I hadn’t seen in 15-20 years,” who is now a nurse at a New York City hospital. The hospital was running low on personal protective equipment within the first two weeks of the national emergency. Guthrie’s friend was desperate for cloth face masks.

“We found a World Health Organization pattern and downloaded it and did some tweaking to it,” said Guthrie of the pattern and prototype she said was tested through TXRX Labs and Methodist Hospital’s Innovation Lab.

“We received feedback that the best, most efficacious mask is a two-layered woven cotton mask that has an elastic head loop. And it fits really nice and snuggly over the face. So,” Kit sent 50 cloth masks to Guthrie’s friend in New York City. “And I thought, oh I’m so happy we could help.”

The emails continued and from one week to the next, Kit transitioned from sewing custom-fit clothing to cloth masks. 

“We got requests from the U.S. Navy. We received requests from hospitals in over 30 states,” like Hawaii and Illinois. 

Her team made 250 masks for Children’s National Medical Center in Washington D.C. She shipped 400 masks to a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier. Kit donated 150 masks to the USPS workers who deliver mail in the Heights. Thousands of masks went to Houston area hospitals.  

“All coming out of our little studio in The Heights.”

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The Kit Team can crank out 185 masks a day. That’s a lot of masks, but not enough to fill the 300 daily requests that were coming in between March and about May.

“So, I hopped on Nextdoor, because that’s what you do late at night when you’re thinking what can we possibly do,” and Guthrie asked her Heights neighbors for supplies and help sewing the masks she was donating to frontline workers. She even posted a tutorial on how to make the masks.

One neighbor, Jan Hawkes, said I can’t sew but she wanted to help. Hawkes, a furloughed graphic designer at the time, offered to precision-cut as many cloth masks as she could. 

“And that was music to my ears because I was cutting all of the masks that we were sewing in our studios,” said Guthrie.

“I didn’t know that 2,000 masks later I would still be cutting,” laughed Hawkes.

Between donated masks and the face coverings Kit sells online, neighbors like Hawkes helped to tackle the little more than 13,000 masks distributed by Kit, so far.  

“Her heart was in the right place and she needed the help and I had the time,” said Hawkes of why she reached out to help her neighbor.

Every once in a while Guthrie will receive a photo of her mask on someone’s face. A thank you photo from a healthcare worker. A photo of a mother wearing a Kit mask as she gave birth. But for the most part, it’s hard to measure just how far one act of kindness can truly go.

“We’re a small dress-making company. And all we really can do is cut and sew. If there’s something we can do to help we want to do it. Right now everybody needs masks, so we’re going to cut and sew masks until, hopefully, no one needs them anymore.”