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Lions powering Empowerment Plan's pivot to medical supply production

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News

Matt Patricia notoriously has poor sleeping habits. Like many in his profession, the Detroit Lions coach stays up late and gets up early trying to outwork the competition and come up with ways to make his team better. 

But even with the NFL's upcoming draft remaining on schedule, and 10-12 hour prospect evaluation conference calls filling his days, it hasn't been football that's been keeping Patricia up at night the past few weeks. No, it's been the gnawing feeling eating at many during the COVID-19 pandemic, the drive to find some way to help during a time where we've been rendered powerless. 

Lions running back Kerryon Johnson paid a visit to Empowerment Plan during his rookie season.

The pathways of Patricia's brain are still wired to problem solve, cultivated from his past as an engineer. He's been thinking mechanically, such as trying to figure out if there's a way to convert CPAP machines into ventilators. But it was a late-night suggestion from his wife, Raina, that sparked a more practical way for Patricia to help. 

Raina pitched reaching out to the Empowerment Plan, a Detroit-based nonprofit that employs displaced single parents to make coats that convert into sleeping bags, fighting the issue of homelessness on two fronts.

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Raina wondered if the team of sewing machine operators could be equipped with patterns to mass produce surgical masks? 

"I was like, 'Holy (crap), that's a great idea. Let me find out,'" Patricia said. 

The Lions have been partnered with the Empowerment Plan since 2016, already funding their mission as part of the team's "Detroit Lions Inspire Change" social justice initiative. And each year, the team sends its entire rookie class to the nonprofit's production plant in Detroit as part of teaching the newcomers about the community. 

When the Lions got in contact with the Empowerment Plan at Patricia's request, the coach learned the company was already deep into plans to produce both surgical masks and hospital gowns, even though they weren't sure how they were going to fund the crisis-driven pivot. 

With a combination of team and personal resources, Patricia committed to helping get things off the ground. 

"They truly help people get out of the bottom," he said. "Let's put them back to work in a safe environment. Let's get them up and running for the first month and just let them know whatever it is, we got them and we'll figure it out."

Patricia is also looking to his roster to contribute to the cause. The first call the coach made was to linebacker Jarrad Davis. 

"He's so great with all that stuff and he's very generous," Patricia said. "JD is spearheading this with the players, getting the information out. He's really stepped up, from that standpoint.

"I love their unselfishness," Patricia said about his players. "I love when there's a call to arms, these guys always come through to help in tough times. Obviously, this is a tough time."

Logistically, the Empowerment Plan is hurriedly navigating through the transition. After producing more than 40,000 coats since being founded in 2012, the nonprofit is rapidly pushing toward being operational with surgical mask production by next week. 

Jahlani Tavai visits the Empowerment Plan Plant on Tuesday, June 18, 2019 in Detroit

CEO and founder Veronika Scott is still sorting through many of the details, but the expectation is to bring back 15 sewing machine operators — the maximum allowed for safe conditions — who could produce up to 6,000 masks each week. 

"We're working with a few other organizations," Scott said. "One in particular that we're working with is called ISAIC (Industrial Sewing and Innovation Center). We're working with them to come up with the design with the FDA — prototyping and all those things so that we're utilizing the right pattern. There are a lot of face mask patterns going around that people can sew in their homes, but those aren't really surgical grade.

"We're also partnering with local hospitals on the design, so their input is getting collected," Scott continued. "Our team is really going to be the bulk of who is producing them."

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Another issue Scott is focused on is the safety of her employees, most of which have three or more dependents. Despite suspending standard operations due to the pandemic, the organization has been able to continue to pay its more than 50 employees.

"We've worked with them for so long and we want to maintain their stability," Scott said.

Now, they're looking for a fraction of that group to make a sacrifice for the medical professionals, working on the front line of this health crisis battle. 

"Very rarely is there a call to action for a team of sewers," Scott said. "When we heard that, first and foremost, are the people we already serve going to be safe? We have to make sure they're OK. Once we figured out how to create that environment, it's amazing to be able to do something to help out all those people that are risking their lives every day. That's huge."

Unlike the extensive reach of the organization's coat initiative, the production of medical supplies is intended to help at the local level, at least at the start. From there, they'll reassess production and demand. Right now, Scott is trying to take things one day at a time through the transition. 

Matt Patricia

Thanks to Patricia, the Lions, and other partners, The Empowerment Plan is ready to hit the ground sewing. 

"The biggest part is we're not doing this alone," Scott said. "This is a unprecedented time in our world. I don't know how else to describe this and we can't do this by ourselves. We've been really working with and leaning on partners to do things that we cannot and we weren't set up to do. I think everyone is really coming together to recognize the biggest need — the health and safety of our people on the front lines of COVID.

"For us, we have our core mission, supporting those permanently exiting homelessness. Employing people to do this helps push that forward, and at the same time, this is products that serve a bigger holistic need."

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers