At the start of April, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) announced that it recommended citizens wear cloth masks when in public.
Instantly, the demand for masks skyrocketed. It was this need that made the work of East Alabama Mask Makers even more essential.
The Facebook group, founded by Warren Tidwell and Denise Boulet, has over 1,000 members with well over 50 active sewers. Together, they have produced and shipped over 6,000 masks to both commercial entities, such as East Alabama Medical Center, as well as individuals within the community that expressed a need for masks.
East Alabama Mask Makers works primarily through the use of its Facebook page. There, orders are posted and sewers volunteer to fulfill an order. More often than not, these masks are created from each sewer's own stash of cloth and elastic bands. From there, a group of volunteer drivers delivers the masks. The entire process is completely free to the customer.
A prominent sewer in the group is Jenny Robinson, a neuroscientist and an associate professor at Auburn University. Robinson points out that the masks being made not only help protect the wearer, but they also help prevent a shortage of medical masks.
“The whole point of the masks is not to provide a substitute for the medical grade PPE but to spare the medical grade masks,” she said.
One of the group’s administrators, City Councilman Bob Parsons discovered the group after his duties as an Opelika fire inspector were deemed non-essential.
“I’m not one to sit around,” said Parsons, “At least I could do something for my community.”
Since joining the group, Parsons has been encouraged by how the volunteers have impacted the community.
“It’s an inspiring little group of people right here in the Auburn-Opelika area helping out where they can," he said. "I’m really impressed with it."
Parsons stressed that anyone is welcome to join the group, even if one is unable to sew.
“We’ve got a variety of people doing stuff," he said. "We have people working the spreadsheets for the orders, we have drivers who help transport (masks) to the drop-off centers, so there’s quite a lot of folks involved in it.”
Crafting the masks themselves is not a difficult process, according to Robinson.
“You don’t even have to have a sewing machine, you can just take a needle and thread and a few old T-shirts," she said. "It’s very simple to do. You don’t have to have the sewing elastic; it could be a hairband. There’s even non-sewing options out there, so there’s a lot of ways you can make a homemade mask.”
Robinson also noted that the more she made masks the more efficient she became.
“When I first started out, it took me probably half an hour, but now I can crank them out in about 10 minutes," she said.
In a time of unrest and uncertainty, the members of East Alabama Mask Makers are striving to not only supply masks, but to provide a sense of security.
"It's just a little thing," said Parsons. “But I think it provides individuals with just that little bit of extra comfort and if that’s something I can do, then I do it with joy.”
The East Alabama Mask Makers group is not the only organization calling for help in this time of need. Auburn University recently developed an outreach program led by the university's Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. They too are calling for anyone in the public to pitch in to help the cause.
“We need sewists,” said Scott Bishop, director of Auburn University Outreach’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. “We have about 125 out there already working. Sewing is a domestic art. Those are the people we need, the people who can practice that art.”
While a part of different groups, Bishop echoed the sense of community held by both Robinson and Parsons.
“I don’t feel like I’m a big part of it, I feel like I’m facilitating the really important work of other people," he said. "I feel honored to be part of it.”
OLLI has delivered 1,500 masks to medical facilities, nursing homes and first responders, among other organizations, so far.
To find out more about the initiative and how to volunteer, visit http://auburn.edu/outreach/auoutreachmasks/.
The East Alabama Mask Makers Facebook group is still accepting members and has pathways for sewers and non-sewers alike. Parsons also noted that their initial supplies are beginning to run thin, and that any excess fabric donations would be greatly appreciated.
For more on CDC recommendations as well as homemade mask ideas, visit www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/diy-cloth-face-coverings.html