By Dave Jolivet

ATTLEBORO, Mass. — With fabric, elastic, pipe cleaners and thread that, in total, could span nearly two football fields, a mother-daughter combo has teamed up to create an essential item for essential workers — face masks.

It also turns out that both mask-makers are employees of the Fall River Diocese’s school system. Denise Peixoto, assistant superintendent of the diocesan Catholic Schools Office and Jessica Peixoto, Fine Arts director and a teacher at Bishop Feehan High School in Attleboro, and a member of Feehan’s Class of 2004, began their labor of love even before masks became mandated in public.

“We started seeing the writing on the wall before the mandates came through,” Denise told The Anchor. “We had heard from friends and family who are nurses that it had been very difficult to get new masks at work, sometimes even having to reuse the PPE (personal protective equipment). Since the mandates went into effect in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, we’ve had families reach out to make sure parents, children, grandparents, etc. had face coverings.

“We first checked in with two relatives who are in the medical field to see if their places could use these cloth masks. Both said yes, they’d like them to put aside to use as needed.”

Since that time in early April the pair have burned through more than 20 yards of fabric, 140-plus yards of elastic, 300-plus pipe cleaners and countless spools of thread to keep others safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.

All this was done, and is still being done, in Denise’s and Jessica’s spare time, since both are still active in their diocesan school duties. At the onset of the lock down, Jessica temporarily moved back to her parents’ home. “We have been working almost every weekend since early April, and any time we have free time to get as many made as we can,” said Denise. “We even spent quite a few days over April vacation all day sewing.”

The women have provided masks for the Tufts Medical Center Emergency Department in Boston, the Central Health Center in Providence, R.I., and for friends who are nurses at different locations, for friends, co-workers, and family members reaching from New England to Virginia and Washington.

Most of the masks were sent by mail and some were dropped off in friends’ mailboxes.

As things have progressed, or regressed, during the pandemic, it became evident that the need for face masks would extend beyond the health-care field. “When we first decided to make these masks, it was truly to help the nurses and doctors that have been working so diligently,” Denise told The Anchor. “As time went on, it became clear that it was best practice for everyone to wear a mask in public to protect themselves as well as others. We had people asking to give us money for the masks, and we decided to share with them a link to our Diocesan COVID Fund to help our Catholic schools. 

“I think almost every person we’ve sent masks to has donated. We’ve only accepted a few dollars for shipping. Some friends have given us Dunkin cards as a thank you. We’re not doing this to make money, but to do our part to help people.

“If schools are going to be required to have students and staff wear masks while attending school in the fall (whenever we are allowed to open), we’ll probably continue to make some for the many teachers that Jess works with and families who have students that might need them in the fall.”

Denise told The Anchor that she and Jessica will continue to make masks as long as they have the supplies to do so. They have fabric in abundance, and enough elastic to last for a while, but like a plethora of other products right now, elastic is becoming more difficult to obtain.

Denise explained that she and her daughter are just trying to do their part to keep others safe and healthy. “It’s heartwarming to see stories in the news about how the public is supporting our first responders, delivery people, store clerks, etc.,” she said. “Seeing those little things that people are doing like leaving a chalk message of thank you on the front walkway for delivery drivers, etc., sparked us to talk about what we could do during this crisis.”

And while both women are skilled in sewing and project-making, putting together safe face masks was not on their list of talents — until now. “This was definitely our first attempt at making masks, and took a bit of trial and error,” said Denise. “I definitely have a huge stash of cloth, elastic, thread, etc. that I’ll never be able to use up, so that pushed us to look online to see what could be done with these materials. The mask-making idea was all over the Internet so we decided to give this project a try. I don’t think we ever expected to get requests for more than 350 masks when we started, but obviously the need is there. We’ve had a few people reach out to us to get more after having tried ours saying that they were very comfortable.”

As was mentioned previously, both are still maintaining a full schedule with their diocesan school duties.

“For me this school year has been wild,” Jessica told The Anchor. “This has been my 11th school year teaching art at Bishop Feehan High School, and I am also the Fine Arts director. As you can imagine, teaching art virtually has been a bit of a challenge, but both I and my department have been working incredibly hard to give students as much of our regular curriculum as we can.

“I tell my students every class that this is incredibly hard, but we are all in it together.”

And through it all, Jessica is trying to maintain contact with her peers. “I’ve been trying to connect to friends and co-workers through Facetime and Google Meets as much as I can outside of department and faculty meetings,” she added.

“This situation with the schools being closed has just reinforced how dedicated, hard-working and supportive our school teachers and administrators are to Catholic education, said Denise. “Our Catholic Schools Office leadership team couldn’t be prouder of the work these people are doing every day with our Catholic school students and families.

“They are going above and beyond to help our students not only continue their learning, but also helping the students and families deal with the social emotional piece of this crisis. We are blessed to have these people as teachers and administrators in our schools.”

Denise and Jessica Peixoto don’t consider themselves heroes or anything of the like. They feel that they, like countless others across the diocese and country, are just chipping in to help those who are putting themselves in danger every day to keep others alive and well. “We are happy to help people in this unprecedented time,” said Denise. 

And those are sentiments you just can’t mask.