Anyone who has made a recent trip to the grocery store can attest to the fact that many everyday items are in short supply these days.

For those on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic, one of those everyday products in short supply is PPE (personal protective equipment) masks to help shield a person’s mouth and nose. A group of volunteers primarily based in Auburn and Opelika is trying to help address that need.

In it together

“We have to take care of our people on the front lines because they have to stay healthy to take care of us,” one of the group’s main organizers, Warren Tidwell, said. “That goes back to the fact that we are in this together.”

Tidwell, a community organizer who heads the East Alabama chapter of Hometown Action, first realized the issue when his friend David Kelley of Beauregard expressed a need. Kelly requires a mask for health reasons unrelated to the coronavirus, but with masks in such short supply, he was having trouble finding them.

“He said he was down to two masks of his N-95 masks which he requires daily,” Tidwell said.

Tidwell went to work and helped create the East Alabama Mask Makers, a Facebook group of people who make and donate masks to organizations and people in need. The group has grown to over 400 members.

The group started with the Cotton Boll Quilt Guild, and Cory Unruh is another primary organizer.

“The idea was born from helping my friend David, but once it was set in motion, the community jumped right in,” Tidwell said. “This is all driven by members of the community.”

Those who do the actual sewing have wide-ranging experience levels, but with how-to videos and step-by-step instructions on how to construct different styles of masks, the group is now churning out a consistent product and working hard to get it to the people who need it.

Switching gears

Auburn City Councilman and Opelika Fire Inspector Bob Parsons has had a passion for sewing much of his life and makes puppets in his spare time, but when he saw the need in the community, immediately joined in the effort.

“I just wanted to find some project that would occupy my time and make me feel like I’m being productive,” Parsons said. “I don’t know whether my firefighter brothers and sisters are going to need them, but I’m aiming to have as many as our personnel would like.

“I certainly will be advocating for supplies to the fire department if things, as I anticipate, are going to have some dark times.”

Parsons, originally from Australia, says the group has been inspirational to him.

“In dire time, the people of this country, you see the best of us,” Parsons said of the United States. “It is an extraordinary thing.”

Put to good use

Jenny Robinson, a psychology professor at Auburn University, hadn’t sewn as recently, but with Auburn’s campus closed, she found herself with time to rekindle a hobby and put it to good use.

“Sewing has always been a hobby of mine, but definitely not something I do even part time,” Robinson said. “In fact, when I took out my sewing machine, it had like a broken needle and vaguely remember the last time I sewed.”

Robinson reached out to the East Alabama Medical Center to judge if they had a need and that is when she was introduced to the East Alabama Mask Makers.

“For most people in that group, they are not full-time sewists, and most of them are just like me, dusting off their sewing machines and using the fabric that they have had from various projects to try to put together these masks,” Robinson said.

The group works closely with EAMC and all the people they send masks to so they insure that the mask they create meet the standards of what the need is. In the case of EAMC, even if the masks aren’t always used of the front lines with coronavirus, they can fill needs elsewhere in the hospital during a time when the need is so high.

“My biggest thing was that I wanted to make sure the masks were going to go for good and they were the kind the hospital could use,” Robinson said recalling a conversation with EAMC public relations and marketing director John Atkinson. “He made a really good point that no matter what happened, the masks will be used because they have cancer patients for example that need masks year-round.”

The group takes great care to keep the masks as germ-free as possible with masks being put together, washed, bagged, then dropped off for another group member to pick up and send to its destination.

When masks are dropped off, they are often left on the recipient’s doorstep to avoid unnecessary interaction. Recipients are encouraged to wash the masks before use as an extra precaution.

How you can help

While the need for sewists exists, the group is encouraging anyone who would like to help the effort to join the Facebook group and reach out to them. The group also makes use of people to deliver masks and taking donations of supplies as well.

“We have so many community members who just have huge hearts, want to help and have skills,” Robinson said. “This is a great time to utilize those skills.

“I was definitely shocked, but definitely not surprised given the heart of the Opelika-Auburn community.”

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