what to do if you can't
find paid work

The moment I realized this week's handmade surgical masks were just as valuable as toilet paper was last week, I got excited. I had already lost 2 months worth of work to Coronavirus - a timeframe 1.5x longer than most Americans even knew about COVID-19. It had already wreaked havoc on my Chinese-dependent supply chain by the time New Yorkers were fearing the spread, so my company was already hemorrhaging money. 

Then I realized, there was NO budget whatsoever for this project and not only did I quickly realize that this would be purely a volunteer effort (regardless of my business's overhead), it would also be at my own expense in terms of supplies too. I felt torn. I'm a helper by nature - who would I be if I didn't step up to the plate, get my hands dirty and make the sh** outta some masks? After all, nurses and doctors shouldn't be punished by the risk of catching Coronavirus, simply because the healthcare system and government are slow to act. 


After getting the basics in order, and creating a list of resources for other stitchers wanting to help (and coming to terms with the fact that my commercial rent may not get paid next month, I gathered my cotton scraps and got to cutting.

I made hundreds of masks - and I documented every way to make one. I videoed, took photos, uploaded tutorials, every way I knew how. I would make a video in portrait mode for TikTok and Instagram and in landscape for Youtube & Facebook. I kept taking imperfect action and refined and improved as I went along, in ways that fit in with other content on each platform. I kept showing up - even when my hands were sore from cutting, sewing, and trimming, and my back was so bad that I broke isolation to hobble stiffly into the chiro for an 'oh-my-God-fix-me' adjustment. I shared the funny parts with TikTok, the inspiring parts with Instagram, the educational parts with Youtube, and shared everything onto Facebook so Grandma could keep up. I sent extremely vulnerable emails to my mailing list, just checking in and letting them know my intentions to sew these masks until I got other work, or until I got evicted - whichever came first. A raw and vulnerable message of my true current status - no filter - created connection and brought many people out of the shadows and into solidarity with me.

In the span of the last 12 days in isolation, I didn't Netflix n' chill once. I've pressed n' sewed. I've ordered materials and counted 6" elastic pieces. I've been so busy sitting at my sewing machine that my only indicator that anything is wrong outside is the fact that there's no money replenishing a bank account that's quickly dwindling, and I haven't gotten to hug anyone on my team in what feels like ages. I miss speaking with them face-to-face. I miss paying them too... that part felt better than you'd think.

I kept cutting, sewing, pressing, sending... all the while sharing bit by bit with the internet. Then something weird happened. Reporters started showing up in my inbox, wanting to know all about the mask-making process. All sorts of requests, but for the most part, I kept my head down because I didn't have time if I was going to get those masks out today. Press like the New York Times, the Tennessean, and Hello Sunshine. 

do the work & share about it - you have nothing to hide

give of yourself as if you have nothing to lose

Mad at Coronavirus for all the tomfu**ery it brought upon my business, I kept my head down and did the work that made a true difference. It hurt my wallet, but it was the right thing to do with my time, and at night, I began creating ways to support others doing the same - whether it be by emailing my list or creating content.

My name and company started appearing on sites like the New York Times, the Tennessean, and others, right around the time that I had exhausted my fabric stash, and a few other seamstresses that lived nearby. And then boxes of fabric started showing up on my doorstep - anonymous tokens of encouragement to just keep sewing. I don't know how much longer I can keep this going, a thought I had, but kept to myself until now. I started getting emails from strangers who tracked me down from the article, just to tell them how much it meant to them that I was committed. Dang, okay, tomorrow I'll get up and sew. 

My Facebook and Instagram stories turned into features, features were shared dozens of times, and then something cool happened. In between the exhausting amount of posts I was tagged in - a never-ending list of Tennessee-based healthcare facilities in need of masks - was a request for a bulk order... with a budget. And guess who had earned the respect from all their volunteering?

Working for free isn't about the work -

It's about sampled value. Food-based businesses teach us that people love samples. Teaching others why something should hold monetary value has everything to do with allowing them to sample it - whether it be emotional (inspiring others to make masks), logical (I have just enough fabric to make X more masks for doctors fighting COVID), or financial (if you buy a mask, I can afford to make 5 for an assisted living facility).

I did learn something about myself that's worth sharing: that the free work you provide must come from a place of boundaries and security, or you'll walk away feeling taken advantage of. It's like Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs.. you can't succeed in the area of self actualization and fulfillment from helping others so long as you're so financially stressed that you fear for your own survival. And it isn't an all-or-nothing scenario either - I don't believe that's possible during a pandemic.

Just because there isn't a budget for your current workload (yet), doesn't mean it doesn't have value. It means, it's up to you to show up, and create for impact, so that as the budget comes available, you've already proven your value and quantified your worth.

proving yourself when you have nothing to prove

I didn't realize that one week of implementing - ACTUALLY implementing, what Gary preaches would be all it took to prove:
A. I knew what I was doing within the scope of the project
B. I was hell-bent on making an impact using this skill
C. My knowledge and skill was worth everything, but giving without expectation inspired others to do the same using their contacts and resources

I was put in touch with what would become a paying client... to make masks! That's right - relentless sewing all day and resource-building all night landed me a baby contract to do for money what we had been doing for free. The contract is requesting that masks be sewn as fast as humanly possible - and all the content I tirelessly created proved that wouldn't be an issue. I expect this to be one of many - and of course, this becomes the perfect opportunity to tap other out-of-work seamstress who like me, took massive action with no expectations - because they have nothing to hide, nothing to lose,  and nothing to prove, either.