Taking a Lifelong Skill and Turning it Into a Lasting Impact

SJU professor makes masks for health care workers

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Red House vice president Anna McFillin wearing a homemade mask. These masks can be used on their own or paired with an N95 respirator. PHOTO COURTESY/ ST. JOHN'S UNIVERSITY

It may be hard during this time of crisis to see the light or find a way to make an impact, but a St. John’s administration and economics professor is doing just that. Anna Elaine A. Licari-Lagrassa, Ph.D., has been able to assemble a group of volunteers —  from businesses to churches to her fashion club, — who make “and [distribute] masks for health-care professionals currently serving on the front lines of the worldwide coronavirus pandemic,” according to a press release by St. John’s University

Growing up,  Licari-Lagrassa was immersed in the hospitality and garment industries through her parents. She has been sewing since the age of  nine and, in the same press release by the University, said “she felt compelled to put those skills to good use during this crisis.” Her group of volunteers have banded together to  become “a small army of dedicated volunteers.” 

“I tell people that this crisis is not a sprint, it is a marathon. I appreciate whatever support people give me, but I say if there is any way you can do more, that would be great,” she said.

The members of her church joined her to make masks and distribute them to St. Mary’s Hospital for Children in Bayside, Queens. She also reached out to her friends in the fashion industry for cotton fabric and elastic donations. One of her friends went above and beyond by donating more than 400 masks, which were given to Dr. Jasmin Moshirpur, the medical director at Queens and Elmhurst Hospital and the dean of Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai who is also a dear friend of Licari-Lagrassa.  The Queens and Elmhurst Hospital specifically has become a hot spot of the crisis in New York City. 

The project has also become a family affair. Licari-Lagrassa’s husband helps by cutting mask patterns. Her son and husband both help her with deliveries as well. However, she still practices social distancing with her deliveries. Nurses who pick up the masks pick them up from outside her house, notifying her before they arrive and after they leave.  Licari-Lagrassa “also leaves masks in the trunks of doctors’ cars.” 

Lacari-Lagrassa is also a parishioner of St. Anastasia Parish in Queens. She was able to connect Dr. Moshipur to another parishioner at the church, who was then able to donate 30,000 N95 masks, which are recommended for healthcare personnel by the CDC.

Licari-Lagrassa, aside from her contributions during this pandemic, has many other impressive feats under her belt. She is also a Fulbright scholar, United States Study Centre scholar and has worked for American Airlines, Prudential Securities and Union Carbide. 

Even while doing this outreach, she is still teaching her four classes remotely. She is touched by her students who express their concerns to her and reminds them to do anything they can, and that everyone will get through this. 

Leann Fredericks, the communications chair of St. John’s fashion club, Red House, commented on the work Licari-Lagrassa has been doing. 

“Dr. Licari’s efforts do not go unnoticed and are unmatched. She has shown that no matter what you do, you can help during this time of need. Many of us think that because of social distancing we can’t help those around us. But Dr. Licari found the loophole, while still practicing social distancing she has found the time to help those who need her and her many talents,” Fredericks said. “We are truly grateful and honored to have her as a part of Red House and more importantly, St. John’s.” 

When asked about the final destination of her masks, Licari-Lagrassa  said, “I do not care where they go, just as long as they get into the right hands. You can do good in your own way, and that reverberates in ways you cannot imagine.”