Singaporean in Canada leads volunteers to sew 50,000 PPE items amid Covid-19 pandemic

Ms Shanta Sundarason set up a volunteer group that has made about 50,000 pieces of PPE during the pandemic. PHOTO: JORDAN MOHAJER

SINGAPORE - After Ms Shanta Sundarason, 53, visited Singapore in March last year, she flew home to find Canada in full lockdown.

The Singaporean, who has lived in Canada since 2010, usually visits her family here twice a year.

She had experienced the country's battle with the severe acute respiratory syndrome, or Sars, here in 2003 and thought Covid-19 would play out in a similar way.

But when she returned to Unionville, a village near Toronto, it was to a changed world. All shops were closed and only one person a household could go to the supermarket. Medical consultations were done on video call as people could not see the doctor in person.

"That was when fear set in, and people started thinking: 'What is going on?'" she recalls.

"Now, people are used to it, but in April, many were scared to go out or were living on their own, or had lost their jobs. Mentally, they didn't know what to do."

She was facing her own pandemic woes, too. Her business, specialising in laser hair removal, was shuttered as it was not an essential service.

Her Canadian husband Masood Mohajer, 56, runs a pharmaceutical business. Their three children, aged 17, 19 and 21, returned home from high school and university to start online learning.

But when Ms Sundarason realised there was a critical shortage of face masks, she sprung into action.

In April last year, she founded a volunteer group, WE Care - York Region, named after the region where she lives.

She estimates that the group has since sewn and distributed about 50,000 pieces of personal protective equipment (PPE) in her Markham neighbourhood and other parts of Canada.

"I had never used a sewing machine until April 5. I borrowed one from a friend. Sewing a mask is not that easy but once you've done it 50 times, it becomes easy."

Ms Sundarason had similarly embraced community action to alleviate adjustment problems when she first moved to Canada more than 10 years ago.

She was formerly a hotel designer based in Singapore, who worked on projects around the world, such as Hilton hotels in Milan and Mauritius.

But one of her children was struggling in school in Singapore and she wanted the kids to have a different type of education. Her husband also hoped to be closer to his elderly parents in Canada.

But when she moved there in her 40s, she found it difficult to make new friends.

"I was miserable for two years. But getting involved in the community helped me grow some roots. I needed that for my own mental health," she says.

Eight years ago, she founded a volunteer group to mentor children called The Giving Tree Unionville. In 2016, she received the Sovereign's Medal for Volunteers for her work there. The Canadian honour was created by the Crown, represented by Britain's Queen Elizabeth II.

She leveraged that network of contacts she built to help her pandemic relief efforts.

Within a week of founding WE Care - York Region, her group had recruited more than 100 volunteers. They met online on Zoom, where skilled amateur seamstresses taught the rest how to sew two-ply masks with a filter pocket.

Their product list eventually expanded to include other PPE items, such as scrub caps to cover health workers' heads, scrub bags used to pack soiled uniforms after a day's work and fabric PPE gowns for workers in senior care homes.

When mask-making supplies ran out, friends and strangers rummaged in their basements for cotton and elastic so they could continue their work.

The front porch of Ms Sundarason's house became a drop-off point for contactless deliveries of fabric and other materials.

Thousands of items were deposited there daily at the peak of the PPE shortages. For months, she says, the doorbell rang constantly, driving her family insane.

"Once people knew what we were doing, tons of requests came in from those in need," says Ms Sundarason, who sometimes clocked 16-hour days, checking all the supplies and finished items by herself.

"When you're going through a crisis like that, you don't think about it. The adrenaline keeps you going. It's only when you're done that the mental exhaustion hits you."

So far, about 50,000 face masks and other types of PPE have been delivered to beneficiaries that include frontline workers, long-term care home employees, support workers aiding seniors who live alone, as well as low-income families.

"The most challenging part was getting the items to those who needed them, like homeless persons," she says.

"The great thing is, a lot of charities that normally work on their own started collaborating."

The group teamed up with a homeless charity who drove around Toronto to deliver masks and warm blankets to those sleeping in the streets, where wintry temperatures have plunged to -20 deg C.

Many have been avoiding homeless shelters for fear of catching the coronavirus there.

The group now has about 300 active volunteers.

After PPE supplies stabilised, the group turned their attention late last year to helping other communities in need, such as by donating provisions to victims of domestic violence.

Ms Sundarason, whose business is still on hiatus, plans to carry on her acts of service since so many continue to be affected, economically and mentally, by Covid-19.

But she notes that the pandemic has also brought out the best in humanity.

She recounts how she worked with volunteers who had lost jobs, parents or other family members to Covid-19 and who did not even have the solace of a funeral for their loved ones because of the restrictions.

"Yet they were sewing every day. I've shed so many tears during this whole journey because there have been so many selfless people," she says.

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