Elisa Sastra of Chelmsford, who’s made over 3,300 cloth masks to be given away at Breen’s Diner in Pepperell, where her daughter Berta Sastre works. (SUN/Julia Malakie)
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When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Elisa Sastre’s first instinct was to help in whatever way she could. As soon as she heard that front-line workers were facing a mask shortage, she knew the best way she could help was to sew.

Sastre, a Chelmsford resident, was previously a fashion designer in her home country of Spain. Because of her background in fashion, she was quickly able to learn to make masks after watching a few video tutorials online.

Elisa Sastra of Chelmsford, center, who’s made over 3,300 cloth masks to be given away at Breen’s Diner in Pepperell, where her daughter Berta Sastre, left, works. Also pictured is diner owner Jeff Breen of Pepperell. They have a box outside where people donate fabric. (SUN/Julia Malakie)

“I thought, ‘OK, this is something that I can do, I could help,’” she said. “I couldn’t think of anything else.”

Since April, when she made her first masks with a curtain in her home, she has donated about 3,300 masks in her community and isn’t stopping anytime soon.

Because Elisa Sastre “cannot sit still,” according to her daughter, she initially spent hours and hours at her sewing machine making masks.

“She was sewing and watching TV at 10 o’clock at night, when she woke up in the morning,” Berta Sastre said. “She just really wanted to help everyone.”

At her family’s request, she slowed down and now only makes a handful per day.

From left, Elisa Sastra of Chelmsford, who’s made over 3,300 cloth masks to be given away at Breen’s Diner in Pepperell, where her daughter Berta Sastre works. At right is diner owner Jeff Breen of Pepperell. (SUN/Julia Malakie)

Initially, Sastre focused her efforts on supplying masks to the front-line workers who were short on medical-grade masks at the start of the pandemic and received fabric donations from her neighbors to do so. Once they were stocked, she moved on to other essential local businesses, such as the local pre-kindergarten where she teaches Spanish part time.

Sastre really hit her stride, though, when she began donating masks to Breen’s Diner, a Pepperell restaurant where her daughter, Berta Sastre, 24, is a manager. The diner, a local favorite decked out in ’50s decor, was a perfect fit for Elisa’s multicolored, and sometimes seasonal, masks.

“We got a bunch of donations at the beginning, like in the summer, of Halloween and Christmas (fabric), and we would joke and be like, ‘Oh, COVID won’t last that long,’” Berta Sastre said of the seasonal mask offerings at Breen’s. “And then she saved them.”

Elisa Sastre ’s masks are triple-layered, with a piece of flannel in the middle, for added protection from the coronavirus. Otherwise, she’d feel “uncomfortable” giving out flimsy masks. She has three sizes: kids, adult and adult large, which she added when she realized her masks didn’t fit some patrons.

Sometimes, she also makes custom masks. She started by giving each Breen’s employee enough masks to cover a week’s worth of shifts in matching colors. She even customized some of the masks for the kitchen staff who needed a different design for long, hot shifts behind the stove. She also customized a few masks for one patron who regularly donated a lot of materials by stitching her name on the front.

One of the most meaningful custom masks the she remembers was for a young boy with special needs who often came into the diner with his mother and brother. He had initially refused to wear a mask, but when he saw a simple white one adorned with musical notes at the diner, he loved it. Sastre later surprised the boy with a bag of custom black-and-white masks with extra-soft fabric.

Berta said patrons are often shocked when they realize the masks are free, even though there’s a sign saying so affixed to the baskets that hold the neatly displayed masks. Even though Elisa Sastre initially refused to accept cash for the masks, patrons of Breen’s always tried.

“People would say, ‘Here, let me donate money,’” she said. But Berta Sastre said her mother “doesn’t want to charge anything.”

“She’s just doing it out of the good of her heart.”

Elisa Sastre always accepted fabric and elastic donations, however, and Breen’s patrons did not disappoint. Breen’s “was amazing,” she said.

“People were dropping off bags and bags with so much material,” she said. “It was nice to see that people have such a nice heart. It was very gratifying.”

Eventually, she relented and began accepting cash donations, too, all of which goes directly toward materials.

Because so many people have grabbed masks from Breen’s, Elisa Sastre is looking for other places to donate her masks that are still in short supply. However, she’ll keep donating to Breen’s too.

“As long as people want them, and I have the material and I can do it, I will keep sewing,” she said.

And the Breen’s staff appreciates the effort. Jeff Breen, who opened Breen’s six years ago, is grateful for the town’s support throughout the pandemic, in the form of takeout orders and donations for Elisa Sastre. But he is equally grateful for Elisa Sastre’s donations.

“To have somebody like that, that’s just willing to work so hard for literally nothing except for the satisfaction of helping people,” he said. “It’s just amazing.”