(Right) Gwyn Whittaker delivers 5,000 2-ply cotton masks sewed by contracted Makers for GreenFare Health and Wellness, a 501(c) (3) organization to County of Fairfax, Logistics Center at 6800-A Industrial Road in Springfield. (From left) Jason Reinsburrow, Ronald Garner, County of Fairfax Procurement & Material Mgmt. and Gwyn Whittaker, CEO of GreenFare Health and Wellness.
Photo by Mercia Hobson.
Unthinkable scenarios happened in early March. The COVID-19 pandemic hurled itself into Northern Virginia; small and large businesses shuttered and unemployment rates escalated. At the same time, restaurateur and CEO Gwyn Whittaker, with a background in engineering and 35 years in technology fields, stepped into the mask sewing arena. Whittaker said, "It was a very intense period of time." She contracted individuals across the region, many unemployed, to sew an astounding 45,000, 2-ply cotton fabric masks to fill pending sale orders.
"We ended up getting the whole crew from Bloomingdale's. I think we had 50 people contracted at one point. Now we are down to 30 and pay $2 a mask, which averages out to $20 an hour," said Whittaker. She supplied, at no cost to the Makers, individual kits with enough pre-washed, pre-cut 6" x 9" fabric panels and elastic cording to make 100 two-ply masks.
Whittaker is the founder and CEO of two local businesses. The first is her for-profit, plant-based, educational restaurant in Herndon. The other is her IRS-certified nonprofit, GreenFare Health and Wellness (2019), focused on holistic health integrated with a practice of supporting health practitioners and medical professionals, according to Whittaker. On Wednesday afternoon, May 27, with three large boxes full of pre-packaged masks in her vehicle, Whittaker drove to the County of Fairfax Springfield Warehouse on Industrial Road. There she met employees Jason Reinsburrow and Ronald Garner, Procurement & Material Management, and turned delivery of the County's most recent order of masks, 5000, over to them. Whittaker said, "Fairfax County bought 39,200 (masks); police bought 4,500 and 800 were sold to the public. “ Total sewed and sold in seven weeks equaled 44,500.
There are specific business rules for specific threats, whether operating a business for-profit or nonprofit business. However, there were no business rules for a pandemic. As COVID-19 swirled throughout Northern Virginia and beyond, Whittaker had reached out and creatively leveraged support beyond her current and past professional career experiences, recruiting and tapping individuals across professions for insight and mutual collaborative support. Early on, business associate, Keith Black of Clifton reached out with an idea.
ACCORDING TO WHITTAKER, Black said, 'What do you think about making medical masks? They're easy to make, there's going to be a huge demand. And, you know, I think we can do it." That one sentence propelled Whittaker to step into the mask-making arena under the umbrella and mission statement of her IRS-certified nonprofit, GreenFare Health and Wellness. Black recruited Dr. Yusuf H. Khan, formerly of Ashburn, for his insights into masks. "I think it quickly became apparent that medical masks were different than the cotton fabric ones now. The problem was that if people were mandated to wear masks, everybody would go after the medical masks," Whittaker said. Black also recruited business owner Melissa Mangelli of Manassas. The initial foursome became The GreenFare Health and Wellness 501(c)(3) fabric mask-making team. Mangelli and others who had sewing experience joined the effort and made prototypes. The project took off, beginning with orders from Fairfax County.
Whittaker said, "I am the Hunter Mill Commissioner on the Fairfax County Small Business Commission." Whittaker added she informed the Commission they were small, local nonprofit business, woman-owned and showed the prototypes. "They were interested and initially placed a 3,000 mask order for their people," she said. After that, Whittaker received donated fabric from Michael's, and five volunteers showed up to work.
THE NEXT THING the team knew, unemployed people came looking for jobs while at the same time orders skyrocketed.
Faye Brown and Shafiq Halim are two of the contracted mask makers. Brown said that she was blessed to have the knowledge and equipment to sew. "I was glad to take part in helping the community. It was also a bit of financial help for my family and me. I am a realtor and work at a winery, and it has been a difficult time," she said. Halim was a tailor at Bloomingdale's and unemployed. "I just said yes… I have this tailoring talent. If I cannot be in the medical field to help, this is also one way to try to help others," he said. According to Whittaker, the project remains sustainable through sales and donations with contracted Makers producing 10,000 masks per week. She said, "We will continue the project as long as there is a need…(Also) we are collecting requests to donate now that we have built up production… at GreenFare.org."