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‘Sewing a fine seam’: Mask makers make difference

Industrious volunteers from across Butler County and beyond have stepped up. They’ve opened up their sewing machines, fished out their fabric and elastic and honed their seamstress skills to make masks for healthcare workers, essential employees and those with compromised health to use during the COVID-19 pandemic.

They are nurses, retirees, business owners, students and community volunteers. And they all say they are “sewing a fine seam” to make a difference.

Greenville’s Gerri McGinnis — realtor, pianist, Relay For Life coordinator, mom and “Gigi” — says her involvement in mask making came out of necessity and a desire to protect a precious family member.

“My daughter, Abby, a nurse at UAB, made me aware of the need,” McGinnis said.

McGinnis’ concern for her daughter and her fellow nurses was so great that she shared it with a friend, Nita Smith, in a phone call the day after her chat with Abby.

“Gerri called me early on Tuesday, March 31, and I could tell she was upset,” Smith, a retired hairdresser who lives near Greenville, recalled. “Gerri told me she was worried due to the mask shortages, her daughter was told to take her mask off and put it in a bag and use it the next day. So, Gerri was making some to get to her.”

Smith soon joined McGinnis in the effort to make masks for those in need.

“I found a tutorial on Pinterest, but I could not get the hang of it for a while, and I do mean it took a while,” Smith said. “Now, it’s a breeze.”

According to Smith, it takes an average of 10 to 15 minutes per mask to complete if the pieces are already cut out. She has now sewn approximately 100 masks, all donated to friends, family, the elderly and to the Butler County Board of Education.

“I like to help folks when I can and I pray that these masks are a blessing to those who receive them,” Smith said.

McGinnis says that with the help of friends like Smith and Joni Thomas, she has been able to donate more than 100 masks to Abby and her fellow nurses and medical staff at University Hospital in Birmingham. Other donated masks have gone to Baptist Hospital in Montgomery, Pine Needle Place Assisted Living in Greenville and to family members and friends scattered across the state.

“I have used two different patterns and made alterations as I sewed the masks for different uses,” McGinnis said. “I was made aware of the great need for these masks in the season of COVID-19. Not everyone can see that need, but I can, so it is my honor to use my talents in this way.”

Greenville’s Jessica Bowman, a registered nurse at Crenshaw Community Hospital in Luverne, knows first-hand the importance of personal protective equipment. She said seeing nurses being exposed from lack of PPE served as her primary motivation to start making masks.

“Also, when people with certain health conditions have on a mask, I am in hopes that it will help minimize transmission to these people,” she said. “The public definitely should save the medical grade face masks for the health care workers and use the types of masks many of us are making.”

Bowman is a little unsure just how many she has completed – “more than 100” – but she can tell you where they’ve gone.

“The mask that RN Wendy McGriff has on in the picture that ran in The Greenville Advocate is a mask that I made for her before she traveled to NYC,” Bowman said.

So far, Bowman’s masks have traveled to McGriff and fellow nurses working in New York, to Baptist South in Montgomery, area nursing homes, Greenville physicians’ offices, Jackson Clinic in Greenville and Crenshaw Community Hospital. Others went to people and medical professionals throughout the area needing them to reduce exposure while in public.

“I have really enjoyed making these masks,” Bowman said. “It has become a true team effort at the hospital where I work.”

Retiree Peggy Johnson, a former dental assistant from rural Butler County who became a stay-at-home mom and crafter, says she started making masks before it was the “cool” thing to do.

“I saw a video of nurses actually making masks in the O.R.,” she said. “They knew what was coming and wanted to be prepared. I thought, they should not be having to do this. Surely, we can all help. The pattern I am using is the one those nurses in the video used, a type approved by the hospital administration. It has a pocket for a filter — they use coffee filters – and wire nose pieces.”

Johnson admitted that she hasn’t kept count, but knows she has already made at least 250 masks.

“The first batch went to Crowne Nursing Home employees,” she said. “Sandra Medley of Crowne was generous enough to donate the fabric for 126 masks already cut out. I knew I couldn’t make that many fast enough, so I took some of the fabric to Joni Thomas, and she shared with Gerri McGinnis for the UAB masks.”

Other masks made by Johnson have gone to employees at Country Place Memory Care in Greenville, the Greenville Fire Department, Baptist East and Jackson Hospitals in Montgomery “and the rest have gone all over the south.”

Something that has touched Johnson’s heart, she says, is the generosity of those wanting to assist in some way.

“The ones who can’t sew want to help the cause in any way they can,” Johnson said. “They have donated fabric, thread, elastic, money; some even offer to help cut out the fabric. One lady donated her entire stash of about 50 fat quarters, which are 100 percent cotton fabric and the best choice for the masks. If you look at Walmart’s fabric department today, the fat quarter section is empty.”

Susie McIntyre of Greenville describes herself as “much better at baking cookies than I am at sewing.”

When a former Greenville resident’s relative contacted McIntyre about a Facebook community, the Alabama Facemask Project, “I was blown away by the number of people on the page asking for masks,” she said. “I told my daughter, Hope Foster, that we somehow needed to help. I felt that every mask completed could make a difference.”

So McIntyre and Foster teamed up with McIntyre’s sister, Betty Stabler, a Lowndes County resident who is also an licensed practical nurse and safety manager at Hyundai Steel.

“Betty has been sewing our masks for us,” McIntyre explained. “Hope and my granddaughter, Maddie, actually cut out 150 masks in a single day. They are working on cutting more. Several local ladies, including Cheryl Stanford, Christine Cook and Jeannie Cobb, have joined us as seamstresses in this effort. That helps keep this all rolling and we can really get the masks out to where they are needed most.”

McIntyre serves as the coordinator and “gopher” for the mask making team, trekking to Andalusia, Montgomery and other area cities and towns as well as going online in search of fabric and notions.

The masks stitched by McIntyre’s “sewing circle” have gone to Ivy Creek Clinic in Georgiana, a dialysis clinic in Prattville, Medical Center South in Wetumpka, as well as to various friends and family members with compromised immune systems, the elderly and those undergoing cancer treatments.

As is the case with a number of other mask makers, McIntyre’s group is not charging for the masks they produce.

“We just want to be able to help,” she said. “I believe that when we all pull together, we can make a difference. I’m so glad that everyone is coming together to help. It’s so important to try and keep everyone protected.”

“It does take a village to make all this happen,” Betty Stabler added. “I think we are nowhere near the end of all this and we want to see more masks go to people here in our communities.”

Nita Smith hopes to see the pandemic fade away in the not-too-distant future.

“I really pray this virus ends soon,” she concluded. “If I have any masks left, they can be a memory for the future — a reminder of what we went through together.”

For those interested in donating supplies or money, or who are in need of masks for themselves or a group, Butler County’s volunteer mask makers suggest you check out the Alabama Facemask Project and Million Mask Challenge pages on Facebook. You can also contact the individual volunteers via Facebook with your questions.