For the past five years, the Stanwood-Camano chapter of Days for Girls has been dedicated to sewing feminine hygiene products for women and girls around the world.
But in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing shortage of personal protective equipment, the group has switched gears to sew another crucial item: surgical masks for medical professionals and patients.
“We have the skills to help the community,” said Stanwood-Camano Days for Girls director Charlene "Charlie" Teel. “We also have passion and work ethic — we’re a force.”
‘We are shifting our focus’
As the COVID-19 virus swept across the state, members began to hear disturbing anecdotes.
“Many of us are connected with the health care world,” said Teel, a retired laboratory technologist. “We began hearing of nurses covering their masks with hand sanitizer, using the same masks for a week and seeing multiple patients with one mask. We even heard of a nurse whose old mask fell off while they were treating a patient who had coronavirus.”
Across the country and around the globe, demand for medical masks has dwarfed supply. As N95 mask supplies dwindled, Washington hospital workers created DIY masks out of office supplies and hospitals urged the public to donate masks, grassroots mask-sewing efforts began.
On March 20, Days for Girls, an international nonprofit organization, launched the Masks4Millions initiative, encouraging its chapters to provide millions of masks for hospitals and clinics around the world.
“Our founder sent out a newsletter letting us know that for the time being, we are shifting our focus,” Teel said.
In response, Stanwood-Camano Days for Girls members joined forces with the Cama Beach Quilters and the Camano Island Quilters — whose memberships tend to overlap — to sew surgical masks. At least 40 people have chipped in to help, so far crafting about 600 masks as of Friday.
Along with spending hours sewing, some local Days for Girls leaders stepped into new roles. Teel handles communication, tracks masks distribution and enforces safety practices. Team leader Carol Hoekstra serves as the liaison for the health care community. Community outreach leader Pam Fredericksen is connecting Days for Girls with local quilting groups. Local sewing specialist Esther Woods reviewed all mask options, materials and videos. Retired chapter director Miriam Lancaster is gathering materials and recruiting participants.
“People are telling their friends, their neighbors, their churches,” Teel said. “The movement is growing.”
As of March 24, Stanwood-Camano Days for Girls and others have donated 150 masks to Josephine Caring Community, 15 to the Warm Beach Clinic, 20 to the Whitehorse Clinic, and six to Tweets Restaurant in Edison, Teel said.
Members are also sewing masks for the Providence Medical Group in Marysville and the Everett Clinic in Stanwood.
Making the masks
According to the CDC, homemade masks are not considered PPE (personal protective equipment) because the protection capabilities are unknown. Unlike N95 respirator masks, homemade surgical masks are loose-fitting and thin, and there is potential for moisture to seep in.
However, according to Miriam Lancaster, a retired Days for Girls sewing specialist and retired Stanwood-Camano Days for Girls co-lead, the homemade masks can help protect medical providers from coughs and sneezes and keep patients from touching their faces.
Participants can choose which types of mask they make, depending on their skill level, preference and availability of materials. Several sources, including JOANN Fabric and Craft Stores and Deaconess Hospital, have released online mask-sewing tutorials.
Stitchers might spend 10 or 15 minutes to make a mask, and many locals have dedicated several hours a day to the task.
“It’s a bit of a technical sew,” Lancaster said. “You need to know how to make pleats and manage some bulky areas.”
When sewing, Lancaster tries to make her masks as attractive as possible, whether that means choosing a beautiful color or a Jedi hero pattern.
“I always hope my mask gives someone a smile,” she said. “I want to make life a bit easier for our medical professionals — our modern-day heroes.”
People helping people
For some, the cause hits home.
“As a retired nurse, I can understand how awful it would be to work without masks and other protective gear,” said Lancaster.
During her time as a U.S. public health service officer, Lancaster was deployed to provide health care and education during Hurricane Katrina.
“Seeing these statistics today, I know this could be really bad,” Lancaster said, adding that making masks "is just a little thing I can do to help some nurses.”
Along with sewing, Carol Hoeksema, a retired family practice doctor, is coordinating with local health care organizations to determine needs and deliver masks.
“Some of my former partners and their staff are ill,” she said. “I’m not boots on the ground anymore, but this is something concrete I can do.”
Retired French teacher Pam Fredericksen, leader of the Cama Beach Quilters, has long enjoyed giving back to the community.
“As a longtime quilter — 30 years — I like to explore other ways of using my stash,” she said.
CBQ has been making hundreds of bookbags for Camano Island Library preschool story hours as well as supplying quilts for the cabins at Cama Beach State Park.
Now, Fredericksen is focusing on masks.
Retired banker Craig Wilson, 68, has a history of using his sewing machine to give back to the community. As a volunteer for Hospice of Snohomish County, he has spent the past several years making hospital gowns, walker bags, catheter covers, butterfly pillows and busy blankets for dementia patients.
“When the need for these surgical masks arose and became more urgent each day, I knew I’d be a part of this,” Wilson said. “I’m all in and originally pledged to sew 150 of the masks.”
Wilson said his work with the chapter is important to him and his fellow Days for Girls members.
“With our regular sewing and ability to distribute slowed considerably, we knew this was a project we could take on and quickly make a difference, sewing from home," he said.
Days for Girls
Before Days for Girls shifted its focus to masks, the international volunteer-run organization was solely dedicated to fundraising and sewing to support more than a million girls in 125 countries.
Founder and CEO Celeste Mergens was working with an orphanage in Kenya and asked how girls handled menstruation. She was shocked to learn that they simply sit on cardboard for several days a month, missing out on basics such as food and education.
Mergens, who lives in Conway, launched the organization in 2008 with a focus on creating washable, long-lasting menstrual supplies.
“If these girls can stay in school, they can have a better life and a career,” Teel said. “We are breaking the cycle of poverty.”
The group also offers a social enterprise component, which entails training women and girls in remote places to sew kits and market themselves to become self-supporting.
The Stanwood-Camano chapter is extremely active, with around 25 to 35 participants who meet four times a month in their dedicated sewing space in Viking Village to produce hygiene supply kits. However, meetings are currently on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Stanwood-Camano chapter also served as one of six collection sites in the country, recently processing 5,000 kits before they were mailed.
Several organizations — including local churches, Windermere Real Estate and Google — offer invaluable support, she said.
“Little Stanwood is involved in an international movement,” Teel said.
Nobody knows if the group will be sewing masks for days, weeks or more. But according to Teel, one thing is certain: “We won’t stop. If there is a need, we’ll keep going.”
To get involved in a protective mask–sewing initiative, the Days for Girls organization or both, email Charlie Teel at firstname.lastname@example.org.