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Local volunteer group making masks for bay area medical workers

Bill DeYoung



Night RNS at AdventHealth in Wesley Chapel, mask recipients. Photo provided.

As it did during World War II, the American home front is mobilizing to do its part to help fight the enemy.

Masks for Medical Workers in Tampa Bay – essentially a lose aggregation of self-isolating folks with sewing machines and time on their hands – have already created and donated 5,000 masks to the local health care industry, and the machines haven’t stopped whirring.

They’re not all sewers, but the group is currently 900 + members strong.

Danielle Weitlauf, who teaches in the gifted program at St. Paul Catholic School, signed up to help.

“I joined the group pretty early on with the idea that I would dig my sewing machine out, and that I would start sewing again,” she says. “And that hasn’t happened.”

St. Pete City Theatre’s fabric donation bin

But the organization’s request for donations of unsewn fabric materials rang a bell. As board chairman of the 95-year-old St. Pete City Theatre, she knew there were reams of fabric on a shelf in the theater’s costume storage rooms. “Last summer, we had our apprentices going through our fabric and separating it into bins,” she says.

“So it was organized last summer, and we were able to go through those bins and sort out what fabric could be used for the masks – the cotton fabric, and the stretchy, T-shirt type material they’re using because they’re not finding enough elastic for the ties.”

Although SPCT has a half-century’s worth of costumes and costume pieces, Masks for Medical Workers in Tampa Bay politely declined to take any of it.

“We found out, from the people who are doing the sewing, that it’s very labor-intensive to take an existing piece and use it for a mask,” Weitlauf explains. “They have a lot of orders, so they’re just trying to work as fast as they can.”

Group co-founder Jessica Thonen teaches theater at Eckerd Collge. “I don’t know that I could sleep well at night knowing I had a talent to do something that could help, but I chose to do nothing,” she says. “We all feel this sense of urgency, sort of a calling, to do what’s right.” Photo: Eckerd College.

Group co-founder Jessica Thonen is a professor of theater at Eckerd College. She, too, donated stacks and stacks of fresh fabric … and once she plugged in her sewing machine, she took a mask-making tutorial and was soon cranking them out.

“We started realizing, too, just how many of us have close friends and relatives who are in the medical field, really on the front lines, that we wanted to make sure were taken care of,” Thonon explains. “But also who could become resources for us. So we could figure out what worked best for them.”

The website, hopefortampa.com, is “the best thing to use for people to request masks for medical professionals,” she adds. “And to help keep our volunteers organized.” At press time, the group had received requests for more than 10,000 masks across Tampa Bay. And so, the machines whir.

Those wishing to volunteer are advised to join the Facebook page Masks for Medical Workers in Tampa Bay, and review the Mask Tutorial page. It’s also a message center and chat board to answer questions about materials and manufacturing.

Those who can sew are key, of course, but the group is also looking for volunteers to be part of the supply chain by picking up completed masks and dropping them off at designated locations. Everything, they insist, is being done with limited to no human contact along the way.

The washable hand-sewn masks don’t filter out the virus itself, but they do protect against splatter or splash reaching the face. They can also be worn in non-critical environments.

“They are not the N-95 gold standard masks,” says Thonen. “But most of our medical professionals have been asked to use those disposable masks for longer than they’re recommended to use. So they’re pairing that with our masks to extended the life of them.

“They’re certainly not the medical grade masks, but they can offer some help and support while we wait for more provisions.”







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