Pittsburgh police, nonprofit collaborate to provide free masksJuly 2, 2020 2:46pm

July 01-- In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, communities are coming together to give back to the people who need it most. In Pittsburgh, the Pittsburgh Police Department and the nonprofit Global Links are joining forces to make essential resources available to as many people as possible.

Masks are an important part of adequate protection for individuals, especially for people who have weaker immune systems or lack access to basic hygiene. With the Need a Mask, Take a Mask initiative, Sgt. Kline-Costa with her police department's community outreach program, and Angela Garcia, executive director of Global Links, hope to provide as many masks as possible for Pittsburgh residents.

The combination of these two organizations is a relatively new occurrence, both having just begun in Pittsburgh, but within the short time they have been active, they have been able to accomplish a lot.

For Kline-Costa, the effort sends a strong statement about the commitment of police to help people. "The office was started in September of 2019 as a way for the Pittsburgh Police Bureau to make a very loud statement that we feel as strongly about community relations as we do about all the other functions of the police," said Kline-Costa.

This desire of the Pittsburgh Police Bureau to make a positive change in their communities, as well as a desire to discover different ways in which they can give back, inspired a link between the organizations to get much-needed masks to the Pittsburgh general public.

Kline-Costa emphasized the importance of tolerance and safety first, saying that she and the entire community outreach team had no desire to arrest or cite anyone without a mask, knowing that many underserved areas did not have access to such things.

"Pittsburgh public safety took the stance that we were not going to use enforcement," she said. "We were not going to cite people or arrest people or do any kind of enforcement with masks. Instead, what we were going to do is provide folks with masks."

The masks were provided by Global Links, whose goal is to provide adequate protective gear to different communities in need.

"Our mission is to support health for vulnerable communities. And we do that by equipping and supplying the clinicians and caregivers," said Garcia. "In this public health crisis, we pivoted to expand and scale our work locally; one of those phases was providing PPE (personal protection equipment) to nonprofits for free."

Global Links has a long history of providing for different communities around the world, especially in the field of medical care. The organization has been working for more than 30 years to provide proper medical equipment to communities that need them.

"Global Links takes gently used or unused medical surplus and repurposes it within communities in need. They started community-based programs where they reached out to different vulnerable or underserved communities right here in Pittsburgh, in the Allegheny County area," said Garcia.

Once the project developed into the combined efforts of Kline-Costa and Garcia, they were able to combine their resources to make the necessary safety gear accessible to the people who need it most.

"Global Links started a partnership with a local mask-making company-a couple of them actually. They started ordering the masks and garnered a surplus. Angela had asked me what do the police need," said Kline-Costa. "The police are pretty well-covered, but our community is going to need masks. She and I agreed that she would provide them to me and I would get them out to the community."

After Global Links made a plan to provide the police community outreach program with masks, the next step was distributing them fairly among the community. In many lower-income areas in Pittsburgh, residents do not have access to cars, or other forms of transportation, so having these resources close to them is a must.

"For a while officers carried around masks with them. Then we just got to thinking about accessibility and equity. There are six zones within the city. Not all of them are walkable, but a lot of them are. Someone else in the group said to use the old newspaper boxes. So the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Pittsburgh Tribune Review donated machines to us. And we just put those in front of the police stations. The coin slot is deactivated and all you have to do is pull down and there are masks inside for anybody who wants to walk up and get one."

The program has been a success. Of the more than half a million emergency masks Global Links has purchased, they donated 55,000 masks to the police to stock the Need a Mask, Take a Mask campaign. Thanks to the no-contact access, and numerous stations in each district, many people are finally able to have access to the protective gear they otherwise would not have had. Despite this success, Garcia and Kline-Costa expressed concern that still not enough people know about the program and that vulnerable people don't know about the resources available to them.

Garcia said their aim is to make the masks available to as many partners as possible. "We're seeing other organizations putting out calls (for masks) on social media," she said. "They still don't have masks. They still don't know where to go."

Kline-Costa agrees. "Most of our launch has been on social media and I know that not all communities use social media," he said. "Some of our immigrant and refugee communities do not use Facebook or Instagram. Mostly they're on What'sApp, and I worry that we don't access them as an audience. A lot of it needs to go word of mouth."

Despite the few setbacks, Need a Mask, Take a Mask is moving forward on the mission of providing the Pittsburgh community with these essential medical resources.

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ABOUT THE WRITER

Ayisat Bisiriyu is an iGeneration Youth reporter living in Pittsburgh, Pa. Read more stories at igenerationyouth.com.

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Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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