In mid-March, as cases of COVID-19 began springing up across the country, new reports began surfacing about critical shortages of PPE—personal protective equipment—the items healthcare professionals and first responders use to protect themselves for disease transmission. Local seamstress Christine McLean was anxious to find a way to help in the face of the pandemic and immediately recognized that she could put her sewing talents to use making face masks. What she didn’t realize were all the other strengths she would rely on to manage an overwhelming response to what began as a small effort.
“I posted online that I wanted to make cloth face masks to help out,” says McLean. “A friend told me about someone named Kathy Green who had started Facebook group asking people to make masks for local healthcare workers and I reached out to her to see if she wanted help. She was hoping to get 500 masks initially.”
McLean and the other organizers set up a Facebook group called Bham Facemasks to connect hundreds of volunteers who jumped in to help sew masks. They distributed patterns and video tutorials for volunteers to follow. They began sourcing materials, coordinating the cutting of fabric and creation of tshirt ties when elastic was in short supply, distributing items to volunteers, coordinating ironing, pickup and distribution of products. They established a website to field an astounding number of requests.
“We started getting thousands and thousands of requests,” recalls McLean. “It was insane. I was having doctors come to my house and pick them up. I was literally I was working 14-hour days managing logistics to try to keep up with the demand. I used to work for Healthsouth, so I have this experience managing big projects. All these people came together with all these experiences and we were able to work together to do something amazing. I truly believe were all in the right place at the right time.”
To date, the group has distributed over 114,000 masks into the community. They partnered with hospitals and doctors offices across the state and with the Jefferson County Unified Command to make more than 10,000 masks for first responders. The establishment of 501(c)3 status, grants and donations allowed the operation to expand to employ a production team of 17 women in addition to 6 members of the BhamStrong workforce. McLean is proud of the collaborative effort.
“We basically created a whole company. We are able to employ women who started out as members of our volunteer sewing community. We are contributing to Alabama economy. Fabric from Best Fabrics in Winfield, it’s now cut by Power Laser Cut in Leeds. Lovelady had women quarantined and they’ve done all the ironing. We can make about 3500 masks-5000 per week with independent people sewing in their homes.”
As the demand for PPE has been met with increased available supply, McLean’s team has shifted focus toward need. They are now seeking more donation, grants and partnerships to provide face masks for rural and marginalized communities. They are also looking to help children across the state who are anticipated to return to school wearing facemasks this fall. McLean says she was glad to find a way to help in such a trying time.
“It’s such a great story of all these people coming together. 114000 cotton facemasks out of the goodness of our community. I think people need to do something positive in times of uncertainty. It feels good to be part of something bigger. It feels good to do something for the community at large. In the end, we all want to help.”
To learn more about getting involved in the effort, visit bhamfacemasks.com.
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