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Can a Small Business Start Making PPE Last Week? “Hell, yes!”

This story about an emerging small business pivoting to make critical personal protective equipment for an Indianapolis hospital is not simply one of the brilliant examples of people adapting and pitching in during the Covid-19 crisis: It is a textbook case of how LISC staff and partners—nimble, passionate and embedded in their communities—make inspired connections that link residents and enterprises with opportunities that are literally life-saving.

“We can do it!” was Rosie the Riveter’s catchphrase in the emergency of World War II. Polina Osherov, of Indianapolis, had a similar slogan—“Hell,  yes!”—when Tedd Grain, LISC Indy’s executive director, called her with an urgent question: could the nonprofit sewing collective Osherov runs stitch surgical gowns to protect healthcare workers of Indy’s Eskenazi Hospital as they confront the emergency of Covid-19?

Grain’s call came the last week in March. By early April, the nonprofit PATTERN and its fledgling sewers’ collective StitchWorks had delivered a first batch of gowns to the hospital, the flagship facility of Eskenazi Health, Indiana’s oldest and largest public health care system. And some 90 skilled Indy sewers, many of them women over 50, had signed on to labor over their personal sewing machines making a total of 2,500 gowns over the next couple of months.

With global demand for vital PPE—personal protective equipment—exploding in the pandemic, hospitals around the country are facing potentially life-threatening shortages. In Eskenazi’s case, PPE is being produced literally at home. The words “made in Indianapolis” have never been so important.
 

Quick work

The partnership came together fast, thanks to deep, long-term ties of trust and shared commitment among Eskenazi, LISC, PATTERN, and the Indy neighborhoods they serve.

The day after talking with Grain, Osherov got on the phone with Sherron Rogers, a vice president of strategy at Eskenazi and one of two incident commanders in charge of coordinating the hospital’s response to Covid-19, as well as a member of LISC Indianapolis’s local advisory board.

Adaptive reuse at its finest: a car-parts laser cutter Dallara IndyCar Factory cuts out PPE for hospital workers.
Adaptive reuse at its finest: a car-parts laser cutter Dallara IndyCar Factory cuts out PPE for hospital workers.

Osherov learned that the hospital’s normal usage rate of 750 gowns per day had leapt to 1,200 to 2,000 gowns per day. The hospital had only three days’ supply on hand. While Eskenazi was receiving abundant donations of homemade masks, made easily by hobbyists with just about any available fabric, gowns posed a bigger challenge. To meet the crisis, Eskenazi wanted to replace disposable gowns with a wipeable, durable covering that could be washed and reused some 40 times. 

The hospital supplied PATTERN with material—“a fluid-resistant polyester,” says Osherov, “so if you throw a glass of water at it, it just beads and falls down.” Then a contact from the local Dallara IndyCar Factory reached out to Osherov wanting to help, and agreed to use the factory’s laser cutter, normally used for car parts, to cut the polyester into appropriate pieces. PATTERN put out the call for stitchers online, and within eight days heard from 90 locals equipped with the requisite sewing skills and a straight-stich machine and serger for trimming and enclosing seams.

With an immediate $2,000 grant from LISC and prototypes provided by Eskanazi, PATTERN created and digitized a pattern for the gowns, slightly retooled its maker space for sewers who want to stitch on-site (at a safe distance from each other), and got to work. Each gown takes an experienced sewer 45 minutes to make.

PATTERN's surgical gowns in action, on Eskenazi staff: Sherron Rogers, vice president for business development (left), strategy and operational excellence; William Phillips, operational excellence consultant; Brian Barrick, director of operational strategy and excellence.
PATTERN's surgical gowns in action, on Eskenazi staff: Sherron Rogers, vice president for business development (left), strategy and operational excellence; William Phillips, operational excellence consultant; Brian Barrick, director of operational strategy and excellence.

This initiative provides much more than the proverbial drop in a bucket. “I look at it this way,” says Rogers. “Instead of having to use 2,000 disposable gowns every day, with Polina [Osherov] and PATTERN we’ll have 2,500 reusable gowns that we can have in service at any given time. Plus that will allow us to build up our supply of disposable gowns. It meets the needs that we’ll have throughout the facility.”

As of the writing of this article, Indianapolis’s Marion County, the epicenter of the Covid-19 outbreak in Indiana, was bracing for the epidemic’s local peak projected in less than two weeks. Already Eskenazi had more patients on ventilators than at any time in its history, its critical-care unit just about full and readying for expansion.
 

A history of everyday heroics

One thing we’ve all learned in this pandemic: what goes around comes around. If there was anything that LISC or PATTERN could do to help Eskenazi’s frontline workers stay safe while helping Indy residents survive Covid-19, they wanted to do it.

Founded in the mid-nineteenth century during a local smallpox epidemic, the health system, which includes ten neighborhood clinics, has been consistently “community-facing,” as Osherov puts it; “a wonderful partner,” to quote Grain. Eskenazi has been a sponsor of PATTERN, and has worked with LISC to promote food security, improve the social determinants of health, and support a network of community health workers in disinvested Indianapolis neighborhoods.

The PPE project highlights the importance of keeping jobs at home. “Literally, we’re saving lives,” says Osherov. “You can’t trivialize the skill.”

The PPE initiative rests on, and enhances, the three organizations’ shared mission in local economic development, never more important than in the public health crisis that is also producing terrible economic suffering.

It’s creating paid work, for one thing. PATTERN’s sewers earn $9 per gown, producing up to 25 per week.

And the nonprofit’s home base, Indianapolis’s Circle City Industrial Complex, is a major economic development project in itself. A former automotive parts factory covering nearly half a million square feet, the dilapidated complex was purchased in 2015, and in 2018 LISC Indianapolis stepped up with $4.1 million in financing to rehab the industrial space when traditional lenders would not.
 

An economic lifeline for Indy’s makers and doers

Many of the complex’s 160 tenants—artists and makers, small businesses, and nonprofits—are hurting now, their revenues collapsing amid the pandemic’s necessary but harsh shutdowns.

When Grain’s call came, for example, Osherov had been forced to cancel all PATTERN events, including the public launch of its sewing collective, planned for March 19. The organization’s central mission is to cultivate the fashion, style, and arts sectors in Indianapolis, and its StitchWorks was intended to elevate a traditional skill—sewing—that is increasingly outsourced to overseas labor making cheap garments that feed America’s waste stream. The PPE project highlights the importance of keeping those jobs at home. “Literally, we’re saving lives,” says Osherov. “You can’t trivialize the skill.”

To funnel ready money to struggling local businesses and nonprofits, LISC Indy is dedicating $75,000, so far, to a fund that will match money raised on the crowdsourced microloan platform Kiva. Kiva allows individual lenders to kick in as little as $25, with loan amounts up to $15,000. LISC’s technical assistance to applicants and one-to-one matching funds will help preferred borrowers raise the loan amounts quickly—a lifeline for entities that might have a hard time tapping into federal relief monies. Says Grain, “This is part of LISC’s response to the crisis for small businesses, particularly those that are vulnerable, like minority- and women-owned businesses. Undocumented immigrants can apply. And it’s the right product, with zero percent interest and a six-month grace period.” 

PATTERN will be one of the first applicants for a $10,000 Kiva-LISC loan to turn up the gas on its sewing collective project, which will offer classes and, in time, production work for skilled sewers. “I’m thinking long-term,” says Osherov. “And I think we have a really good case now.”

As Eskenazi prepares to care for more critically ill Covid-19 patients in days to come, its Indy-made surgical gowns will be a daily reminder that relationships—bonds the health system, LISC, and PATTERN have invested in for years—pay off exponentially when the chips are down. “And by the way the gowns look amazing,” says Rogers, a grace note, she adds, that reflects PATTERN’s fashion roots. “We have very talented people in our community.”

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