Volunteers with Vance ties make nearly 2,000 masks to protect essential workers

Vance Air Force Base librarian Cathy Reed prepares to run the library’s 3D printer, which she’s been using to create bias tape makers for Enid Mask Force. (Photo provided)

ENID, Okla. — In less than two weeks, a group of about 60 local volunteers has produced more than 1,700 face masks for essential businesses, health care workers and volunteers.

Enid Mask Force came into being on April 3, when Groendyke Transport President and CEO Greg Hodgen contacted Alison Burchett and Gail Wynne in search of masks for Groendyke drivers.

Matt Palmer, communications and brand development manager for Groendyke, said the company wasn’t able to locate any masks for its drivers when the CDC on April 3 recommended their use for all people in public places.

The company shared video tutorials and patterns on how to make homemade masks to all its employees, but Palmer said the effort took off when Burchett agreed to organize volunteers.

Burchett and Groendyke quickly settled on an arrangement that would fulfill the needs of the company’s drivers, and provide help for people in need in Enid. Groendyke would supply all the materials needed for the masks, and in return for the labor to make them committed to a $10,000 cash donation to Loaves & Fishes of Northwest Oklahoma.

Groendyke also agreed to donate any leftover material so Enid Mask Force could produce masks for health care workers and other volunteers.

Two days later, Burchett began to rally volunteers and organize them into a production system that gathered cloth from the Prairie Quilt fabric shop in Hennessey, then distributed the material by a system of delivery drivers to cutters, ironers, sewers and then back to Burchett for distribution.

A system of porch drops meant most of the people involved would never meet, but also would not have to break social distancing guidelines.

Burchett said the initial task of providing masks for Groendyke was daunting. The company needed 1,400 masks as soon as possible to supply all its drivers.

Burchett said the labor and cloth were available, but with so many people suddenly trying to make masks, some materials couldn’t be found.

“Our first big challenge was to make straps, because there was no elastic available,” Burchett said.

She decided to instead use bias tape — a strap made of folded and sewn cloth, more labor-intensive but sturdier than elastic.

“We bought all the bias tape makers in town, and that was two,” Burchett said with a laugh.

The volunteers overcame that challenge when Cathy Reed, librarian at Vance Air Force Base, offered to use the library’s 3D printer to make the bias tape makers, which fold the fabric into finished edges ready to be sewn.

Reed put the 3D printer to work, printing the plastic bias tape makers, and as of last Friday she’d printed and distributed more than 75 of the devices to volunteer sewers in Enid Mask Force and beyond.

She said she was glad to find a way to contribute to the effort.

“It’s a good thing to do. Everyone is needing the PPE, and it’s hard to find,” Reed said. “There are a lot of people home who need something to do, and if they can’t find the materials and I can print them, I want to help.”

With the production system in place, including a website with an instructional video, and the needed materials in hand, Burchett said it didn’t take long for the number of masks to start adding up.

By April 7, the group had made 47 masks. Three days later, it was almost 600 masks. In one day, on April 13, they made more than 300 masks. And by April 14, one week after their first masks were finished, they had made enough to fill Groendyke’s need for 1,400 masks.

The effort has called on people of all experience levels, from drivers who’ve never sewn, to those who’ve done it professionally.

When Cathy Breyley first heard of the project, she said she was glad it was divided into production segments, so she could help out.

“When they first sent out the call for helpers, I thought, ‘Well I didn’t get A’s in sewing in high school, but I can cut,’” she said.

Breyley set out to cut masks, first with scissors and then a donated rotary cutter. As of Friday, she’d supplied the cut parts to make 250 masks.

She said having an opportunity to serve during the pandemic has been a blessing.

“For me it was huge,” Breyley said. “My husband and I are both in the high-risk bracket ... and having a project like this that people needed, that you could really be doing something for someone else and not have to leave your house, is fantastic.”

Being able to help others empowers people, Breyley said, reducing the helpless feelings that can come with isolation.

“You get to a certain age that you think you can’t do anything for people any more, and that’s just never the case,” she said. “The at-risk people can still do something to help people.”

Sue Schmidt came to the project with more than three decades of experience teaching sewing, first as a family and consumer sciences teacher and then to youth at First United Methodist Church.

She hopes the recent need for homemade masks will reinvigorate educational programs in sewing, and other basic life skills.

“I think every school should teach family and consumer sciences,” she said. “They’re basic skills that help students the rest of their lives.”

For now, she said the students she’s taught over the years have a meaningful way to give back through sewing.

“I’ve always told them your skill is helpful,” Schmidt said, “and you can always give through your talents.”

Earla Haggard, office manager in her family’s business, Industrial Materials Corp., said she found time to sew masks during the slower business brought on by the pandemic.

“I was getting a little stir crazy in the office,” Haggard said with a laugh. So, she brought her sewing machine into the office and started making masks.

“It’s easy enough work, and I can stop whenever the phone rings or when someone comes in, and I enjoy sewing,” Haggard said.

The project is giving her a chance to reconnect with a skill she learned as a girl in her mother’s fabric shop in Pawnee.

“It’s just something that I enjoy doing, that’s easy and pretty simple that can benefit someone,” Haggard said, “and if I can help, then great.”

Hodgen, president and CEO of Groendyke Transport, said the volunteers of Enid Mask Force have gone above and beyond what was expected.

“We are exceedingly grateful to ... Enid Mask Force for their efforts during this difficult, challenging time,” Hodgen said. “In a matter of a week, they managed to supply all 40 of our nationwide locations with enough masks for each employee to have one.

“Enid has its fair share of heroes during this pandemic, and that includes the Enid Mask Force and groups like it,” Hodgen said. “It makes me proud to live in a community that is so giving.”

Above and beyond what was supplied to Groendyke, Enid Mask Force also has provided masks to Loaves & Fishes, Jumbo Foods, Vance Air Force Base Library, Glenwood Elementary School, a group of nurses in Alabama, North Enid Police Department and Integris Bass Baptist Health Center’s labor and delivery department.

As of last Friday, the group had cut more than 425 yards of fabric, and made more than 2 miles of bias tape to go into more than 1,700 masks.

Burchett said she expects production to continue through at least 2,000 masks.

For more information on Enid Mask Force, and to see their mask tutorial, visit https://www.enidmaskforce.com.

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Neal is education and health reporter for the Enid News & Eagle and editor of Vance Airscoop. Follow him on Twitter, @jamesnealwriter. He can be reached at jneal@enidnews.com.

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