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Mask making effort from community produces thousands of masks in time of need

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Left to right: Seth, Elijah, Emma, and Jessica Frey worked on face masks last week. They worked in an assembly line to help provide those masks for Montrose Memorial Hospital. Marsha Taylor and Suzan Platzer helped organize the effort. (Submitted photo/Marsha Taylor)

Working vigorously as the COVID-19 virus had finally reached Montrose, frontline workers at Montrose Memorial Hospital were increasingly on the verge of a potential personal protective equipment (PPE) shortage. The pandemic had arrived like a thunderous wave, and though hospital staff was prepared, needs started to quickly pile up.

“At the beginning of the pandemic, PPE was in short supply and it was imperative that we saved the masks we could get for our direct caregivers – however, we also had a high demand for masks since everyone who worked in the hospital and visited the hospital were required to wear masks beginning March of 2020,” MMH Chief Marketing Officer Leann Tobin said in a provided statement.

Montrose County Commissioner Sue Hansen received a call from Tobin. The hospital needed masks.

Hansen put out some Facebook notices, and within days, an army of mask making community members were at homes — many in different teams — fighting the clock to meet demand.

“It just snowballed from there,” Hansen said in an interview.

Community members went through their own supplies and cleaned out their reserves, offering it for the effort. The local JOANN, a fabric and craft store, donated fabric. And non-sewers in the community filled different roles — delivery, pick up and drop off, among others.

Harbor Freight announced its decision last March to donate PPE equipment, and SOM Footwear and Colorado Yurt also joined the effort.

The community as a whole created thousands of masks, allowing the hospital — and people in the community — a chance to don a mask when, at the time, it wasn’t so simple to get one, and safety from the virus was a priority.

“Our community stepped up and supplied hundreds of cloth masks that our employees and visitors could wear – therefore, saving the medical grade masks for those who were working directly with COVID positive and COVID suspect patients. We could wash the masks and reuse them, which dramatically decreased our demand until the supply could catch up. Quilters, SOM Footwear, Harbor Freight, Colorado Yurt and so many people in our community stepped up to help supply the PPE that was so hard to procure.”

Forming the teams

Though there were dozens of contributors to the effort, the “core four” — Denise Betts, Jan Edwards, Missy Siders and Suzanne Hebert — along with Hansen, started the networking chain of mask making, which evolved to include many others.

Eventually, a wealth of different groups formed, operating from different houses and coordinating their efforts. Plans for certain types of masks were developed — hospital stuff came to need a specific mask — and eventually, effective manufacturing systems were in place to produce as many masks as possible.

“It was pretty amazing how all of that worked,” said Betts, who collectively gathered around 20 to 25 volunteers involved with Montrose Christian Church.

At times, some of the volunteers sowed for eight to 10 hours a day, crafting a variety of masks. It was fitting, after all, said Betts, who teaches sewing and feels the skills the group learned over the years came at the perfect time.

“God gave us special skills,” she said. “You never know when your skills will be necessary.”

President of the Friendship Quilt Guild Suzanne Hebert brought together members of the organization and her team to start developing mask patterns to simplify the process. Zoom meetings and conference calls between different teams, including Hebert’s, quickly became a consistent agenda item.

Word of mouth spread, too, and others joined in, donating fabric or offering assistance with their work. Husbands, brothers, sisters took part in the effort, each lending a hand with a certain task to effectively master the systems in place.

“It was a huge, exhausting, fun, crazy time trying to help the community,” she said.

Hebert eventually witnessed residents in JOANN were aiming to buy fabric, to help with the cause. Others dove into their “stash” and donated. Some spent money for cording, to help tie the masks.

“People were spending their money, their time and their energy because they saw a need,” Hebert said. “I think the community stepped up. The ladies that sowed, they sowed their hearts out because they cared.”

Other contributors, like Siders, came from a different angle, as she’s part of the Magic Circle Players theater costume group. A group of theater volunteers, along with Sider, were able to volunteer and develop patterns on tie use, organizing different ways after securing elastic became difficult.

Once demand died down, her team assembled some masks and donated them to the Navajo nation. And not long after, Siders saw people around town sporting the masks she and her team had made.

“In March, April, being able to buy masks was basically impossible,” Siders said. “So it was really nice that we could do something that could help the community, and help people not get COVID.”

A formalized mask plan from the group was turned into an instructions sheet, one that was downloadable for the public and other mask making groups to use to make for guidance, if needed.

“It was really astounding the number of people who stepped up to help,” Siders said. “All those people that came and donated their time, cleaned out their scrap materials, it was really great to see that.”

Helping with another hurdle

Looking back, Betts can’t help but remember a similar instance where her family was forced to deal with a similar situation — the 1918 flu pandemic, known as the “Spanish flu.”

Betts’ great grandmother died during the 1918 pandemic. A widower, her great grandfather was left with four girls, all under the age of five. The mask making experience brought back memories.

“It brought me back to a time of remembering my grandmother telling me stories about her childhood,” Betts said.

The “snowball effect” her family experienced, after the passing of her great grandmother, seemed similar to what she experienced last year, the first year of the 2020 pandemic. March brought an immediate and forceful change to “normal” life, forcing herself and others to adapt, make changes and find ways to contribute, she said.

“It has that snowball effect,” she said.

For Hebert, reflecting back on how important the moment was strikes a chord. With frontline workers at MMH dealing with the virus directly, the moment was clear for Hebert and her group, and the impact they could have.

“I think that the seriousness that was facing us was huge, and I think it meant so much to all of us to do the best job we possibly could to help those first responders that were just starting to see this virus come through,” Hebert said.

After sending out the plea, help came from everywhere, Hansen said. She, too, gave credit to community members willing to drop what they were doing for a common cause.

“It made me proud to live in a community where people drop whatever their beliefs are and they came together for a common effort,” she said.

The initial mask effort quickly became one of the first community efforts to help others as the virus began its spread in the community. And ever since, the community support for MMH hasn’t stopped.

“MMH has been so blessed by our communities’ love and support throughout this pandemic. Our staff has been surrounded by meals, heartfelt cards of support, chair massages, yummy goodies, banners, chalk art and so much more,” Tobin wrote. “The homemade masks were one more effort that helped the hospital through another hurdle in the marathon called COVID.”

Josue Perez is a staff writer for the Montrose Daily Press

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