For Sharon Hebert, the way to overcome the most difficult challenges is to focus on helping others, and she practices what she preaches.
A 53-year-old mother of two from Norfolk County, Massachusetts, Hebert experienced the negative consequences of the coronavirus pandemic this when she lost her sales job in an antiques store.
But her life was forever changed in February, before the pandemic gripped the US, by the sudden death of her 15-year-old daughter, Helen.
Hebert became part of what she calls “a club” of parents who lost a child, a group she says has been highly supportive. Inspired by a person who also lost a child, Hebert threw herself into an activity.
“I had to think about — what would Helen want? How would Helen want me to react?” Hebert told CNN.
Ever since, Hebert has been honoring her daughter’s memory by using Helen’s sewing machine to craft face masks. Teaching herself how to make masks by watching online videos, Hebert has been selling her masks for $5 to $8 and donating the proceeds to her local food pantry, where she noticed long lines as she drove by early in the pandemic.
“I thought it was something that was going to go on for a couple of weeks, for a month. That was in mid-March, and here we are in November, and I’m still at it,” she said.
Hebert was able to raise thousands of dollars over the course of eight months.
“As of today we are getting close to $17,000 for the food pantry,” Hebert told CNN on Thursday.
Paul Galante, the director of the Medway Food Pantry at Mahan Circle, told CNN that nearly 6,000 people have been fed “with a lot of her money.”
The food pantry has been dramatically busier during Covid, according to Galante. It serves people from about 20 towns in Massachusetts, with some people driving over 45 miles to visit, he said.
“She has been so, so helpful,” Galante said of Hebert.
Hebert’s donations supplied the food pantry with three months-worth of food and allowed Galante to purchase a commercial freezer. Hebert also held food drives, gifting masks in exchange for food donations to benefit the food pantry and donated food herself, Galante said.
“She’s just a wonderful person,” Galante added.
Hebert’s mask-making project started as a family activity with her sister Kerrie and other relatives, after Helen died.
“We would all sit around and we’d just be cutting fabric, making masks, and sharing stories about Helen. In the beginning it was just really good therapy,” Hebert said.
Her 20-year-old son Walter is involved in the process too. “He does the ironing and cuts the threads off the masks when they’re finished and gets them bagged up.”
He will also help Hebert spruce up the Facebook Page dedicated to her project, Medway Mask Makers.
Hebert donated masks to elderly residents in her community, among other groups in need. She is working on preparing a new batch of masks for them in time for the holidays.
“When you are living paycheck to paycheck, or you are on disability or social security, to give out $8 to $15 for a mask, you might have to decide that you’re not going to buy some of your food supplies that week.”
“There are expenses that go along with this pandemic that some people can’t afford, especially if they have lost their jobs,” Hebert noted.
The work brings Hebert comfort through ups and downs of grieving.
“I have very bad days when I don’t want to do anything, but to focus on helping others is one of the best things that you can do for yourself regardless of what happens to you in your life,” Hebert said.
This applies to all, no matter the difficulty experienced, she believes. In her view, that’s especially true during this pandemic, which has taken so much from so many.
“When you focus on the needs of other people, it puts things into perspective and helps you to carry on,” Hebert explained.
Helen was passionate about sewing, something she picked up from her great aunt Pat, a seamstress.
“She started when she was five years old,” Hebert said.
Helen’s first projects were hand sewn Barbie doll clothes, and soon enough she wanted to take on more. “Helen hardly ever asked for anything,” but she requested a Hello Kitty sewing machine.
“For the same price I could buy a real sewing machine, so I bought a Brother sewing machine and gave that to her for Christmas,” Hebert said. “She took right to it.”
Helen had Asperger syndrome, “so whatever she was passionate about, she would hyper-focus on,” Hebert explained.
Helen also loved to cook and to garden. She planted rose bushes around Hebert’s property, and tended to 84 blueberry bushes in their yard.
They were so fruitful that Hebert was able to pick and donate 200 pints of blueberries to the food pantry in July, with help from local youth groups.
Hebert didn’t want to publicize the details of how her daughter died. She described Helen as a sensitive young woman with an inquisitive mind, a passion for current events, and great writing skills, something she sensed could have led her to a career in journalism.
“How many kinds get excited to find a subscription to NPR Radio in their Easter basket?,” Hebert said.
According to Hebert, her daughter was affected by the tense climate in this country, which “has trickled down to the school bus.”
“Helen felt things very deeply. In the last few years, this world has really taken a turn,” Hebert said.
“That really has to change,” Hebert added.
The importance of helping others
Hebert feels that much of the divisions felt nowadays would be healed if people stopped arguing with each other on social media, and used that same energy to get involved in their communities.
“It’s very easy to get so stressed out, especially in these times, but if you begin to help other people, you start to notice that there are really good people in this world.”
She mentioned Galante, a 75-year old Marine veteran who runs the Medway Food Pantry at Mahan Circle with other volunteers, among the people who are active in her local community during these trying times.
“I wish my daughter had known them,” Hebert said.
“You don’t hear about all the good people in the world, but they are out there, doing stuff all day long. If more people did that, I just think that would solve most of the world’s problems,” she added.