Manna Cali usually drives residents of Jefferson's Ferry to medical appointments. When the pandemic hit, she answered a request by the Centereach retirement community to sew protective gowns for their staff.  Credit: Newsday / Steve Pfost

Last spring, as supplies of personal protective equipment ran low in many health care facilities across Long Island, Manna Cali began making her own. 

The 62-year-old Stony Brook resident usually drives the bus at Jefferson’s Ferry, the upscale retirement community in Centereach, taking residents to medical appointments and social engagements. But that work had stopped when the community went into virtual lockdown and she was “looking for something meaningful to do with my free time and to feel useful,” she said in a phone interview.

She started with hundreds of masks, many of which went to area nurses, before her employer made a request for protective gowns for staff at Jefferson Ferry’s nursing facility, the Vincent Bove Health Center. “We were fighting like everybody else” for equipment, said Cali’s boss, Linda Kolakowski, Jefferson’s vice president of resident life. Bove Center officials have reported one COVID death at their facility to the New York State Department of Health, according to state records. The facility has had no positive cases since June 14, and the Independent Living and Assisted Living areas of the Jefferson’s community remain “untouched by the virus,” a spokeswoman wrote in an email.     

What Kolakowski did not know: her bus driver had trained in tailoring and pattern-making and even worked as a designer’s assistant. Cali had  sewn since she was a girl, learning from her mother, a textile designer, and her grandmother, Madalena Iano, a woman Cali called Nona. Nona and her twin sister Margarita came from Turin, Italy, and started working in a Manhattan sweatshop when they were 11; Nona sewed her way out to become a designer who made velvet gowns. 

Cali also has her own workshop, a well-appointed if unconventional room outside her home, in a converted water tower accessible only by ladder. 

Her material was mint-green Smart-Fab non-woven fabric, a material sourced from a school supplies website that is used more often for bulletin boards than garments. The stuff was waterproof, which made it a good choice for the nurses and staffers who would eventually wear it. It was also soft enough for Cali’s White 5500 sewing machine to work and cheap enough to make gowns intended to be disposable. 

First, Cali traced the outline of a commercially made gown on craft paper with holes for a wearer’s arms and head and a little extra room allowed for seams. A tailor might use an iron to press the gown to make her sewing accurate and keep her seams neat; Cali couldn’t, because the material melted. It took 20 minutes to make a stripped-down sample from three pieces of fabric with five seams and thumb holes to keep the sleeves from riding up.

When she began production in earnest, she worked 40-yard rolls of fabric, cutting it on her dining room table before hauling it up to her workshop to sew. One roll made 16 gowns; she made close to 300. She worked six hours a day and learned to relish the breaks she allowed herself for coffee and to walk the dog. “Sitting at a sewing machine for hours and hours hurts your back,” she said. 

Would the finished product have held up to inspection under Nona’s expert fingers? “She’s in heaven laughing,” Cali said. “It was not my best work ever, but it did the job.” 

Now that the supply crunch has eased and Jefferson’s is taking what Kolakowski said was a “cautious approach” to reopening, Cali is driving her bus again, but taking only one resident at a time, and only to medical appointments, not social ones. 

Because of Jefferson’s safety protocols, she never saw her gowns in use, dropping them off at Bove without going inside. 

She has, however, gotten what she called “virtual high-fives” on Facebook from nurses and staffers. “It’s a wonderful feeling knowing you’re helping people who put their lives on the line,” she said.


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