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Self-Care Sewing – Therapy and Giving Back

Cloth masks
Home-made masks sewn by Veterans at the VA Pittsburgh Veterans Recovery Center.

When a Veteran suggested mask making as a form of therapy during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic this spring, VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System (VAPHS) recreation therapist Haley Sherer made it happen.

With face coverings in high demand, Sherer improvised: She brought her personal sewing machine to the Veterans Recovery Center on the H.J. Heinz III campus, arranged for physically distanced learning, and set about teaching Veterans how to sew masks for family and friends. She used patterns to show Veterans how to create masks step by step, from piecing fabric sections together to adding ear straps and finishing touches.

The group of Veterans has been sewing masks a few times a week ever since, making face coverings for their parents, siblings, neighbors, spouses and children. Some Veterans graduated to using their new skill to tailor, stitch and patch personal and work clothing. A few even created footbags, or small bean bags best known by the brand-name Hacky Sack.

Sewing masks doubles as therapy: It promotes a sense of accomplishment and self-care while at the same time giving Veterans a way to care for others while social distancing.

“It also creates positive comradery among Vets and staff,” said Sherer, who gives Veterans all the credit for the project.

Jamie Sloan, recreation and creative arts therapy supervisor, said Sherer’s mask-making program is an ideal example of Veteran-centered care, or involving Veterans in their own care and treatment. Veterans learn a valuable skill in sewing, and the project empowers them to care for others by making masks that limit the spread of the coronavirus. Empowerment, said Sloan, is a critical element of therapy.

One Veteran has made more than 30 masks for his family and fellow Veterans. Another Veteran made a mask for his young daughter and a miniature mask for the girl’s baby doll.

Sloan said the therapeutic rehabilitation program lets Veterans know they are capable, and that someone cares about them enough to invest time in teaching them a new skill.

“Veterans got that message lima Charlie, which is military lingo for loud and clear,” Sloan said. “They internalized the message and now make masks to protect their families and fellow Veterans.”

Veterans and VAPHS staff are welcome to sew masks at the weekly sessions. Voluntary Service provides the materials and participants can work on either of two sewing machines – one of which is Sherer’s personal machine.

To learn how you can get involved, call 412-822-1401.