As the world retreats to shelter at home, some heed the call to step up and help.
When the world hit the pause button to combat a global pandemic, it sealed our place in human history. Throughout the centuries there have been moments that are now recognized as pivot points for what comes after; the era in which we are currently living surely seems to fit that definition. However, invariably signs of strength, hope and ingenuity, all fueled by caring hearts, rise from despair and devastation. In that, these times are also no different. From the earliest days of shelter and quarantine orders, while most of us were just trying to wrap our head around what was actually happening, many people were the penultimate example of what it means to rise to the challenge.
Perhaps the earliest example of leveraging ingenuity that might make a difference, in whatever small way, resulted from a sales inquiry to a local packaging manufacturer SencorpWhite, which not only provides machinery for their clients, but also excels in helping their clients find unique and personalized solutions for their individual business. Brian Golden, Vice President of Sencorp Sales, says that an inquiry from a business prospect at Honeywell in Smithfield, Rhode Island was unexpected, yet intriguing in its possibilities. “The opportunity came to us, and it was very early in the crisis.The virus was virtually still outside of the United States at the time,” Golden explains. “Honeywell wasn’t even our customer, only a prospect. Their question was whether or not we had a particular machine available for immediate delivery. We were lucky: we did. At first we didn’t understand what they wanted to use it for, but it became clear fairly quickly that it could easily accommodate production of N-95 masks that were anticipated to soon be in short supply. At the time, the machines weren’t proven to be able to produce the product, so our company had to make some modifications to the equipment in order to fabricate the masks.”
Golden says everyone at SencorpWhite owns a piece of this effort as well as the ultimate contribution. “I can speak for the entire organization when I say that everyone stepped up to meet the call,” Golden offers. “It normally takes 18 to 20 weeks to produce a machine. When the order came up, everyone knew time was of the essence, and we had to condense that time frame down to under eight weeks. Everybody contributed to making the machine in that short time; and everybody felt a sense of pride that they were able to contribute to a need that is bigger than even just our country, but globally as well.”
SencorpWhite has successfully delivered three machines to Honeywell for N-95 mask production and has several more in the pipeline. In addition, Golden says that another opportunity involving the manufacturing of face shields has Sencorp providing fulfillment to local EMS, police departments, nursing homes and TSA agents across southeastern New England.
Michael Bednark knows a bit about face shields. The Barnstable High School graduate and son of two entrepreneurs (his father started the iconic Barnstable Bat Company and his mother was a very successful private caterer), says that he learned the strong ethics of hard work and stick-to-it-ive-ness from his parents. “Growing up on the Cape, I watched both of my parents work really hard, not for someone else, but for themselves, since they both owned their own small businesses,” Bednark remembers. “So hard work, figuring out a way to solve problems and just getting it done, was ingrained in me.” When it became clear that COVID-19 had set the metropolitan region of New York squarely in its sights, Bednark, who has built a successful and innovative fabrication business, Bednark Studios in Brooklyn, knew he had to figure out a way to help.
“We are constantly taking the specific and uniquely individualized needs of our clients into consideration,” Bednark explains. “And then, we come up with a solution; that’s just what we do. It was all anyone was talking about in March: the shortage of critical Personal Protection Equipment for healthcare and emergency workers. Our team looked at the construction of face shields, and it seemed pretty straightforward. We thought we could definitely come up with something.” In fact, Bednark and his team created a pretty uncomplicated version that could be fabricated with small modifications to some of the dozens of intricate and complex machines that fill the 60,000 square feet of Bednark Studios. “I was always working in my father’s woodworking shop as a kid, so I have always been drawn to creating things.”
The company, which had 150 employees before the pandemic, found themselves making the hard decision by mid-March to furlough almost half of their employees, but a contract with the New York City Mayor’s office allowed Bednark to hire 50 to 80 new employees for face shield production on an assembly line. Production has shifted to almost exclusively face shield production in order to meet the city’s order for 2.2 million face shields, a number that increased by almost double since it quickly became clear that Bednark’s quality and construction of the shields made it the shield of choice for most anyone who tried one. In addition, Bednark has introduced a new product that is starting to gain steam as communities prepare to venture out of home quarantine, and involves installed partitions that provide protection between drivers and passengers for companies like Lyft and Uber.
Bednark also expresses an outlook for where this turn in history might lead us. He has clearly built a successful company with a client list to be envied, including significant installations at late-night comedian Jimmy Fallon’s home that has become a topic of discussion as Americans fill their time with lots of television viewing. “We didn’t build his ‘slide that barn’,” Bednark says, referring to Fallon’s amusement park-worthy interior slide he and his family enjoy on a regular basis. “But a lot of what is in that space are designs we have created, fabricated and installed.” Bednark, who cites events as a significant portion of his business, says that prior to the outbreak, “My staff was used to delivering 12 projects a week. Now, we aren’t delivering any projects, every week. This is a once in a lifetime thing. The whole world is virtually on pause. It is definitely a time for introspection—a time to change and pivot or go do something completely different that you have never done. This is the one chance I think I will have in my lifetime where I can evaluate what I have done for the past few decades and see if there is something else I want to consider. This business may never come back, so we have been having really thoughtful discussions with all of our employees. None of us ever thought we would find ourselves here, but I will say that both our clients and our employees are open to seeing where this all leads and figuring out what is missing and needed. Hopefully we can offer a productive solution.”
A little-known organization on the Cape known as Cape Cod Makers also tapped their collective ingenuity and cranked out face shields for local healthcare professionals. Russ Laffin, a new member of Cape Cod Makers, says he stumbled upon the organization at the end of 2019 when he considered creating a similar type of group and discovered there was one virtually in his backyard. The group has what is termed as a “makerspace” in the Home Economics classroom of the former Harwich Middle School that has recently been converted to the home for the Harwich Cultural Center. “They were the perfect organization to take advantage of the Home Economics room,” says Erica Strzepek, Executive Director of the Harwich Cultural Center who functions as the landlord for a variety of artisans and crafters that make up the space of the re-appointed building. Laffin, a self-described hobbyist/woodworker agrees and says he feels fortunate to have discovered the group as well as the space where like-minded innovators can share access to ideas as well as tools.
Laffin says that early on, as the Cape’s healthcare professionals were implementing plans to deal with responding to a surge of COVID-19 cases, a Cape Cod Healthcare employee reached out to one of Cape Cod Makers’ members, Mike Looney, a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math program) teacher in the Mashpee School System, to see if the makers could figure out a way to supplement the face shield supply for the hospitals. “There were already discussions among the members that there must be ways we can use the knowledge and resources of the group and our amazing space to contribute in some way, so the specific request gave the leaders of the organization something to act on,” Laffin recalls.
Rob Wilson, a retired mechanical engineer who lives in Marstons Mills, is an officer within the organization. According to Laffin, Wilson said that there were lots of designs for face shields circulating within the online 3D printer community. A design from Budmen Industries was adopted and modified to incorporate a simple 3-hole punch that allowed healthcare workers to easily swap and replace new shields themselves. Cape Cod Healthcare’s original request was for 10,000 shields; a number Laffin describes as “totally unreachable,” since the Cape Cod Makers had one 3D printer and it could only produce eight shields a day. Wilson amended the design by cutting it in half to create two pieces that could be achieved by smaller printers that some people actually have in their homes.
A call went out for anyone who had access to a 3D printer within the Cape community to consider volunteering for the effort. A network of over 70 individuals and groups responded, most not members of Cape Cod Makers, and a cottage industry intent on making a contribution was born on this sandy peninsula. Cape Cod Healthcare was able to source half of their original need through traditional channels and the 3D printers across the Cape met their new goal of 5,000 in a matter of a few weeks, and ultimately created a total of 7,500 which allowed the group to pivot and provide the much needed equipment to local nursing homes. Laffin says that between local businesses like Mid-Cape Home Centers and the Baskin family who own a variety of Ace Hardware stores across the Cape, both of which provided miles of weather stripping used for the masks, and a Go Fund Me page that collected donations to reimburse the 3D printing community for materials, it was truly a community effort. The makers are now focused on churning out mask clips for KN-95 facemasks. As for the future, anyone’s guess is good, as Laffin says, “Looking back, a lot of it happened so quickly, but that is what is special about this group, we collaborate and execute. Staying home is critical, but it isn’t active participation, and that is hard for some people. This gave our members a sense of agency.”
Not everyone’s contribution can be boxed up and delivered to those in need. Some, like local singer/songwriter Monica Rizzio donated their talents to strike emotional chords within the Cape community to heal spirits during these strange times. Rizzio however wanted to make an impact that would matter long after her last note resonated with the loyal fans she has collected around the globe. “I just wanted to contribute,” Rizzio explains. “I first had the idea to do a fund raising performance for the Cape Cod Gig Relief Fund, a fund that we founded to support musicians, music teachers and concert production professionals on Cape Cod who were affected by lost gig wages until we can get back to live shows. I had a full tour scheduled; we were heading to Montana as a family for a full schedule of shows. So not only am I at home, but so are all of the musicians, crew and club owners. The ripple effects are massive.” Rizzio’s non-profit Vinegrass is a music and event production company that in more ordinary times would be energetically focused on producing music and festivals that could be enjoyed by the masses. Now her efforts have become far more solitary but still community-focused.
Rizzio, an early adopter of the online streaming concert model where she performs her captivating music, creates a version of what one of her shows would feel like, on Facebook. The “audience” is able to make donations in exchange for the live performance and the proceeds go to a good cause. Rizzio expanded her sphere of influence to also benefit the Cape Cod Arts Foundation, Cape Cod Healthcare and Wellfleet Preservation Hall, raising tens of thousands of dollars for those that have been significantly impacted by the effects of the virus.
Across the globe, the country and Cape Cod, individuals are doing what they can to help people they will likely never meet, and disconnected individuals are finding themselves part of communities they would never have imagined. Brian Golden, the SencorpWhite VP, has found himself a member of a group no one wants to join. Golden tested positive for COVID-19 in early May. He is quarantined at home, feeling pretty miserable, but pushing forward, and he was surprised to find the greatest source of knowledge, advice and support came from Joanne Geake from the Sandwich Department of Health. He says, “I would never have imagined, a town official would give me the most guidance and help in a time like this, but I guess you never know where help will come from.” In the words of Mister Rogers, “Look for the helpers.”