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Push is on for volunteers determined to make 1 million masks

Some of the masks made by volunteers [Source: Hillary Young]

When Hillary Young heard that Italy was running out of personal protective equipment, she worried that something similar could happen here.

“We were all anxious,” said Young of her fellow healthcare professionals. Young is a medical scribe. “I was talking to one of my former co-workers about it in mid-March. Her father works in New York as an OB/GYN, and she was getting first-hand reports about things getting worse and worse there.

“I’ve been a sewer since I took home-ec in middle school, so I started looking online for mask patterns. You see a lot of surgical masks, the accordion-style, and those are fine, but they don’t really seal around your face very well.”

After finding and tweaking a pattern that she thought would work better, Young came up with an idea. Why not invite other sewers to join her in making 1 million masks? She created the Greater St. Louis One Million Mask Drive Facebook group and began recruiting dozens of volunteers – some sew, some cut and prep mask kits, some pick up masks and deliver supplies. But they all have one goal: protect as many people as possible from COVID-19.

Early in the process, Young herself became exposed to the virus and found herself on the sidelines of the movement.

“For two weeks, I couldn’t do anything,” Young explained. But once she was cleared to work again, she was back with determination.

“A lot of the people who came into the group originally either worked in healthcare or had family who did, so at first we were going to focus on donating to front line workers,” Young explained. “When I first started working in medicine, I worked in the ER, so I know how exposed firefighter-paramedics and the police are. We wanted to include them in our efforts as well.

“We have a website where first responders and health care workers can go to request masks,” Young said.

Barnes Jewish West County Hospital sent this photo to thank the Greater St. Louis Million Mask Drive for its donation. [Source: Hillary Young]

Volunteers also are still needed, as are donations.

“We’ve been really lucky with all the volunteers and collaborators that we’ve reached out to through the group,” Young said. One of those people was Garrett Browning, who owns The Fabric Co. in Chesterfield. “When he reached out to us originally, he told us that he had 900 yards of fabric that he was going to donate to us. That’s incredibly generous. Even if you’re only paying $2 a yard for fabric that’s a nearly $2,000 donation.

“Then, he’s just been very instrumental in helping us find fabric. He’s sourced more cotton fabric for us and he’s even found some fabric that has been tested in a lab and certified as PPE-grade. It’s meant to be used for reusable isolation gowns, and we’re looking into possibly branching out with that either to use it in masks or to make gowns.”

For masks, the group uses 100% cotton fabric.

“You can get it at most fabric stores, but a lot of them are closed right now so that’s the challenge,” Young said. “The Fabric Co. is open for business online [thefabricco.com] and you can purchase fabric from them and then pick up fabric in Chesterfield or they’ll even mail it to you, so we’ve been sending people there.”

Young said she also wants people to patronize The Fabric Co. as a way to say thank you for the company’s generosity.

On The Fabric Co.’s homepage, a banner guides shoppers to “100% Cotton Fabric for Face Masks.” Clicking on the link takes the buyer to a fabric selection and a button to donate to the Greater St. Louis Million Mask Drive.

Browning, whose company has been in existence for about 20 years, explained that he just wanted to do whatever he could to help out.

“Being in the fabric business, we obviously deal with a lot of mills. Some of those mills do other things that we didn’t know about because it’s not part of our business. Once all of this came up, we thought we’d reach out to our sources around the world to bring whatever we could to the marketplace,” Garrett said.

Young said the group is also working with Cotton Babies, who is making isolation gowns.

“They’ve offered to let us use their automated cutting machine so that we can make mask kits for those volunteers who sew,” Young said.

As for volunteers, Young says the group consists of a range of volunteers. A lot of our volunteers can’t sew, Young said, but there’s plenty for them to do to be helpful. Interested individuals can join the Facebook group or email GreaterSTLmask@gmail.com.

“In as much as we can be helpful, we will continue to make masks. If we can get to a point where everyone has masks and the supply chain is stable, that’s the end goal,” Young said.

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