On March 20, Joni Jacobson of Alexandria put a plea out on Facebook after getting a phone call from her friend, Dr. Deb Dittberner, the chief medical officer at Alomere Health.

Dittberner was asking for help. Because of the critical shortage of masks in the medical community due the coronavirus pandemic, Jacobson was asked to rally some people to sew cloth masks to be used in the event of a crisis.

The need at that time was about 150 masks.

“We ended up with 200 masks the first day,” said Jacobson, who works full-time at Alexandria Technical and Community College. “This community is so giving. A lot of people jumped in to help.”

Since that time, the need for more masks has grown by leaps and bounds. The next request from Alomere alone was for 3,000 masks, said Jacobson.

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And Alomere is not the only entity needing masks. The hospital, clinics, nursing homes and more have a need for the masks. As do individuals, although Jacobson said the primary focus is on filling the needs of those in the healthcare field.

Despite all of the masks that have been made, Jacobson said thousands are still needed.

Organizing the mask-making needs has turned into a full-time task for Jacobson, who is volunteering all of her time, as are hundreds of others in the community. The project became so large that she started a spreadsheet to try and keep track of the requests and the masks that have been donated.

Although she said her numbers are grossly underestimated, as of Tuesday, Jacobson knows where more than 7,100 hundred masks have been donated. She guesses, however, that the number of masks made is probably closer to 10,000.

“When I pull up my spreadsheet, it makes me cry and smile all at the same time,” she said. “There are so many people who have stepped up in this community and rallied around this effort and they all have value.”

The thought that there are 8-year-olds sewing masks while being homeschooled, 4-Hers doing it as service projects, senior citizens in senior living facilities and everyone in between who are helping to make the community safe warms Jacobson’s heart. But she said that is the vision of this community – people helping other people.

Jacobson started a poll on the Helping Hands of Alexandria Facebook page, where most of the mask posts can be found, asking those who have sewn masks to indicate how many they have made. The numbers vary, she said, but some people have made 500 masks.

Another friend of hers, Amy Allen, has made kits that include all the materials needed to make 10 masks – 10 pre-washed 9-by-6-inch pieces of cotton and 10 pre-washed pieces of flannel the same size, along with one bundle of elastic. As of Tuesday, she has put together 1,840 kits.

“She is an incredible volunteer, as are so many others,” said Jacobson. “These kits make it easy to just grab and go and start sewing.”

Yet another friend of hers, Joani Nielson, reached out and donated 68 spools of elastic, which was so needed since elastic has been hard to come by at times.

Those wishing to help in the effort for making masks for the medical community, materials can be picked up and completed masks can be dropped off at Calvary Lutheran Church, 605 Douglas St. Materials and completed masks, at this time, are for those in the health care field. Individuals needing masks can go the Helping Hands Facebook page for information.

Proud of the residents

Residents at Grand Arbor in Alexandria are another group that has played a big part in the mask-making efforts. As of Wednesday, they have contributed about 725 masks, according to Laura Kremer, life enhancement coordinator at the facility.

“I fully anticipate that number to surpass 1,000 after this weekend,” said Kremer, who added that one of the groups of ladies at Grand Arbor is hoping others will be inspired to join in the effort. In fact, they are challenging other groups and organizations to jump on the mask-making bandwagon.

Grand Arbor Executive Director Tyler Notch said he and the staff are incredibly proud of the residents who have pitched in.

“They have rallied around this idea, dug their heels in, and the amount of masks they’ve made in under two weeks is pretty amazing,” said Notch.

Kremer agreed, noting that so many residents, including those in the memory care unit, have helped. Those who can’t sew have helped cut materials. Those who can’t cut have helped put fabric together. And those who can sew have sewed.

“So many have helped,” she said. “It’s just amazing.”

Kremer received a text message from a co-worker who had learned about the need of masks from Dittberner, just like Jacobson.

“I knew we had a lot of talented sewers here, so we set up stations with the supplies we had on hand,” Kremer said. “We also contacted the Helping Hands group to get more materials.”

In a matter of a day or so, the effort was in full force. Residents were rounding up the materials they needed and many were headed back to their apartments to work on them. Some worked in the room that had been set up following social distancing guidelines.

“It has been pretty phenomenal,” Kremer said. “And the residents are so proud and so honored to be able to help in this way. Given the situation, many have felt isolated or almost helpless and this has given them a way to help the community. They are really honored to be able to help.”

How to help

If you want to help make masks, here’s how:

  • You will need 100% cotton for the front and flannel for the backing cut into 9-by-6-inch rectangles, plus a 7-inch piece of elastic with knots tied on each end.

  • Put right sides of cotton and flannel fabric together.

  • Staring at the center of the bottom edge, sew to the first corner and then stop. Sew the elastic with the knot out into the corner. A few stitches forward and back will hold this.

  • Sew the next corner, stop, and then bring the other end of that same elastic to the corner and sew a few stitches forward and back.

  • Now, sew across the top of the mask to the next corner. Again, put an elastic with the knot out.

  • Sew to the next corner and sew in the other end of the same elastic.

  • Sew across the bottom, leaving about 1.5 to 2 inches open. Stop and cut the thread and then turn inside out.

  • Pin three tucks on each side of the mask. Make sure the tucks are the same direction.

  • Sew around the edge of the mask twice and then you are done.