We Are The Helpers

April 15, 2020

In a now-famous interview that aired more than 20 years ago, Fred Rogers imparted his mother’s simple wisdom on the nation:

“You know, my mother used to say, a long time ago, whenever there would be any real catastrophe that was in the movies or on the air, she would say ‘always look for the helpers’. There will always be helpers, you know, even just on the sidelines. That’s why I think that if news programs could make a conscious effort of showing rescue teams … medical people, anybody who is coming into a place where there is a tragedy, to be sure that they include that. Because if you look for the helpers, you’ll know that there’s hope.”

The message is geared toward young children to help them find a ray of hope during times of distress. His patient and lyrical voice during that interview made all of us – children and adults, alike – feel a sense of calm. Mr. Rogers was the creator of the beloved television series Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. His neighborhood spanned state lines and bridged generations, from “Boomers” to “Gen Z”. His ubiquitous red sweater still stands as a point of light. I’m not sure if Mr. Rogers ever realized he was one of the helpers to which his mom referred. I hope he did.

During today’s orders to stay safe at home, today’s grief of being disconnected from family and friends, and today’s anxiety about the unknown, helping is essential. For young children, keep encouraging them to look for helpers. For adults, we don’t have to look for the helpers. We can be the helpers.

I work with a couple of dozen helpers at Foundations Health & Wholeness. They don red sweaters of helpers and are comforters of different varieties through their work as mental health therapists and counselors and foster care social workers. One of these helpers is Eileen Kozlovsky, a licensed professional counselor.

Like all of our therapists and counselors, Eileen is safe at home and supporting her clients through telephone and video therapy sessions. During her lunch break earlier this week, I called Eileen to chat about how she’s feeling, how the changes in therapy have impacted her and her clients, and what she’s doing when’s she’s not working or taking care of her family. The short answer is that she’s being what Mr. Rogers so simply and profoundly calls “a helper.”

Eileen is a sewing hobbyist and, coincidentally, she married into a family of sewing enthusiasts. At the office, we’ve been grateful recipients of her skillful work, from handmade cloth lanyards for keys, to bright and beautiful cushions for wood rocking chairs in the therapy offices. With the growing need for cloth face masks as COVID-19 reaches into our community, Eileen has spent the last couple of weeks doing what she does best: help.

Eileen started sewing cloth face masks a couple of weeks ago for first responders, as well as front-line friends and acquaintances in the community, like social workers and staff members working for critical human services organizations. Like most projects, it started out small. She sewed a handful of masks, then sent them to the right people.

Eileen quickly ran out of elastic, which is a hot commodity these days. Eileen’s friend dusted off her own mom’s sewing stash, a craft legacy that her friend’s mom left after she passed away. Tucked behind leftover fabric and notions was a jackpot, an untouched package of elastic. It must have been bought long ago as it still had the price tag: 35 cents. It was mailed to Eileen, and more masks for more people continued down Eileen’s production line. Eileen’s friend teared up, saying that her mom would be so proud to know that her beloved sewing kit is helping others in this time of need. Eileen also ran out of fabric. Family and friends dug through their own fabric inventories and gave freely. A family member gave a second life to some leftover flannel fabric scraps that had been part of matching pajamas for the family. There arose a community of sharing of friends, family, and strangers sharing fabric, elastic, and hope.

Eileen heard that a group of 80 social workers in the community gave their masks up to hospitals and other medical personnel as COVID-19 impacted the community. To help the helpers, Eileen made 80 masks for these social workers so they can continue going out into the field to serve some of the most vulnerable members of our community. She made 19 more masks for another group. She’s making masks for the pandemic response team at St. Vincent Hospital. At the time of this article, Eileen has made over 130 cloth face masks for helpers in our community. She’s a helper who’s giving back to the helpers.

Mr. Rogers said: “We all have different gifts, so we all have different ways of saying to the world who we are.” This project is one of Eileen’s gifts of love and labor to her community. She chose to be a helper. She chose to spread hope.

We also are the helpers. How we chose to use our gifts to be helpers is for us to discover.

~Written by Kelly Nutty, Director of Development, Foundations Health & Wholeness

PS – Eileen isn’t able to take orders for masks at this time. She is on the hunt for more 1/4 inch elastic so she can support more helpers. Please mail any donations of elastic to Eileen at Foundations, 1061 W. Mason Street, Green Bay, WI 54303.

Pictures: donated fabric and elastic turned into masks; a string of masks for 80 social workers