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Woman sews masks, creates hearts to cope with her grief, help others during pandemic

'I lost three friends in New York who died from COVID-19.'

Whether it’s been a friend or family member, a majority of Americans across the country are witnessing the toll of COVID-19 firsthand. Finding ways to cope with grief during a time when we are supposed to stay socially distant have become an added challenge. With yellow fabric and a sewing machine, one woman has found a way to bring some sunshine into the lives of others.

“All the stories, many sad stories. They made me want to give a little bit of love, hope, a smile,” explains Patty Illescas, a mother to three daughters.

Illescas currently lives in Gulf Breeze, Florida, but spent 35 years in New York. She hasn’t contracted COVID-19, but she has seen, up close and far away, its impact.

“I lost three friends in New York who died from COVID-19. We were a group of friends who all had young children,” said Illescas, “We were always friends and in happy times I was the one who grew up, we went to the parks, we went to dance, we enjoyed ourselves."

Then the virus nearly claimed the life of her former husband.

“He spent 5, 6, 7 days alone there, dying in an apartment. We did not know until my cousin found out and brought him food,” said Illescas.

Looking for an outlet to process her own grief, she found solace through a Facebook COVID-19 support group. There she started to communicate with other people who’ve lost loved ones. She would often find herself in a counseling role to people who would reach out to her.

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“I saw a lot of pain, a lot of pain in their heart. There was no hope for them because everything is going on,” said Illescas.

She was already sewing masks to give to her church to donate when she was inspired by the support group members to make hearts that represent love. Illescas gave away her handmade yellow masks and hearts until she ran out of money.

Now she sells them and spends the proceeds on materials to make more. Recipients have said her yellow hearts make them feel closer to their lost loved ones.

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“I think they are not numbers, they are fathers, mothers, children, friends who left us. Not numbers, not numbers,” said Illescas.

She said wearing a mask is giving love and respect to other people.

“I think now, right now, what we need is to give love. Today many things happen in politics, and all we have to give is love for our families, our friends, our neighbors. Regardless of race or color, we are surviving. And I believe that with a little love we can change,” said Illescas.