Stitch by stitch, volunteers strive to keep Vashon safe

Masks For Vashon has quietly sewed up a storm to provide free face coverings for every islander.

Islander Kari Ulatoski, at work for Masks For Vashon (Courtesy Photo).

Islander Kari Ulatoski, at work for Masks For Vashon (Courtesy Photo).

In the now nationwide push to urge Americans to mask up to protect themselves and others from COVID-19, a group of hard-working volunteers on Vashon has been far ahead of the curve.

For months now, a group called Masks For Vashon has quietly sewed up a storm to fulfill a mission to provide free face coverings for every Vashon resident. To date, the group has distributed more than 7000 masks to islanders, including individuals, employees of local businesses and essential workers including postal workers and grocery store clerks. Recipients of masks also include every member of Vashon High School’s graduating class of 2020.

According to Kerri Grace, who is one of four leaders of the group, the mission and motivation of the current cadre of 55 volunteers involved in Masks For Vashon is simple.

“Masks are part of the most effective, direct and simple ways we can help take care of each other during this pandemic and slow the spread of COVID-19,” she said. “This is a disease that spreads by respiratory droplets, and a mask makes a huge impact on reducing droplets in the air we share.”

According to Grace, the mask-making initiative was born at the outset of the pandemic, when a group of sewers called Vashon Facemask Makers responded to an appeal from Providence Hospital to sew masks for front-line health care workers.

But when another company stepped up to provide masks for Providence, the group quickly pivoted to stitching masks for Vashon Community Care and the Vashon Care Closet. Almost immediately, more people stepped in and the idea morphed once more into an effort to provide face coverings for the entire Vashon community. This effort, called Masks for Vashon, spearheaded originally by Cynthia Padget, Lisa Loeffler and March Twisdale, was launched on March 31.

The group is currently organized in an assembly-line structure, with volunteers divided into teams. A cutting team assembles the basic components of masks. A kitting team assembles all these components for the group’s sewing team.

The finished masks — which can be ordered on the group’s website, masksforvashon.org — are then delivered by the group’s distribution teams — in charge of personally dropping off masks to both individuals and businesses on Vashon.

Other volunteers perform such tasks as the group’s communications, managing volunteers and filling the group’s Facebook page with information on mask patterns, materials and instructional videos for sewers. Volunteers are also in charge of the group’s website and bank account, where donations are deposited and funds are withdrawn to purchase materials and supplies.

Currently, Masks For Vashon is led by equal leaders who communicate and coordinate with each other, for the most part, remotely. Grace is the lead community outreach and communication coordinator; Cynthia Padget is lead sewer; Lisa Bruce heads the residential distribution team and Lisa Loeffler is the website and donation platform manager.

The group was originally funded by a GoFundMe platform that garnered more than $10,000 in donations to reimburse the cost of materials for the group. Now, the group collects donations directly from its website to reimburse the costs of materials for making masks, which amount to a little more than $3 per mask, said Grace. She added that donations are strictly optional and not required to receive a mask.

“We will continue to make masks as long as there is demand for them and we are funded,” she said. “When this project is over, any leftover money or materials will be donated to island charities.”

She also urged patience for those ordering masks, saying that because Masks For Vashon is an all-volunteer effort, operating in a time of pandemic, that orders for masks had occasionally fallen through the cracks.

But all along the way, said Grace, the group has become more efficient and constantly worked to improve the fit and quality of their masks — a process that is ongoing.

“In the beginning, some materials were hard to come by and we were experimenting with different patterns and materials,” she said. “We have narrowed down the styles and materials to ones that we get the best feedback about.”

Soon, Grace said, the group will begin to make masks with a new type of tie — a Lycra knit with more stretch than T-shirt ties — and would be able to retrofit their previously-made masks.

“As we continue to fulfill new orders, we want to make sure that people know that if they have already received a mask from us that is not working for them for whatever reason, we would be happy to exchange it for one that would work better, or fix one that just needs fixing,” she said.

She also said that the group will soon begin to offer their masks in a public setting, with safety precautions including a Plexiglas barrier to shield volunteers and the public from each other, in order to let islanders choose their own masks from an array of possibilities.

An array shows the color possibilities, sizes and style of Masks For Vashon’s offerings (Courtesy Photo).

An array shows the color possibilities, sizes and style of Masks For Vashon’s offerings (Courtesy Photo).

Most masks made by the group are now constructed with two layers of pre-washed, high-quality 100 percent quality cotton fabric — with much of the fabric sourced locally, from the large, colorful inventory of Island Quilter. The group has also recently produced masks that have an extra layer of nylon chiffon tucked into them as a filter. Currently, the three-layer masks are available only through special request at masksforvashon.org.

Laura Wishik, an active member of Masks For Vashon, said she was excited by the new three-layer masks, pointing to a study recently published by the University of Chicago which determined this type of mask’s increased effectiveness in filtering out aerosols similar in size to respiratory droplets. News about the study is published at news.uchicago.edu/story/homemade-masks-made-silk-and-cotton-may-boost-protection.

Almost four months into the enterprise of Masks For Vashon, the organization continues to be discovered by islanders.

Kathleen Tuma recently ordered masks for herself and family members and encourages others to do the same as well as donate to the organization.

“I’ve told several people to please just get online and get a mask, they’re beautiful,” she said, adding that she had also recently begun to volunteer for the group, cutting wires for nose bridges in masks.

The increased support and recognition for the group’s ongoing efforts have come with an increased need. On June 26, a mandate by Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Secretary of Health John Weisman went into effect, requiring mask use statewide in both indoor and outdoor spaces where six feet of social distancing from others might not be possible.

On July 7, Inslee also required businesses like grocery stores and restaurants to turn away customers who do not comply with mask rules.

Currently, more than half of U.S. states have mask regulations, which like Washington’s typically have exclusions for very young children and those with medical conditions that prevent them from wearing masks.

But the United States, as a whole, has not joined more than 50 countries worldwide which now have national mask mandates — a gap that has prompted major corporate entities including Costco, Target, CVS Health, Home Depot, Walmart/Sam’s Club, Walgreens, Kroger, Lowes, Home Depot, Publix and Kohls to create their own requirements for face-coverings for their customers, nation-wide.

Last week, numbers for new cases of COVID-19 twice topped 70,000 daily, and the United States continued to have the highest rates of infection world-wide for the disease.

In an editorial published on July 14 in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reviewed the latest science and affirmed that cloth face coverings are a critical tool in the fight against COVID-19 that could reduce the spread of the disease, particularly when used universally within communities.

“We are not defenseless against COVID-19,” said CDC Director Dr. Robert R. Redfield. “Cloth face coverings are one of the most powerful weapons we have to slow and stop the spread of the virus – particularly when used universally within a community setting. All Americans have a responsibility to protect themselves, their families, and their communities.”

For more information on Masks For Vashon, including how to order masks and donate to the group, visit masksforvashon.org.


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