West Valley group on track to sew, donate 10,000 masks


If mass runs on toilet paper, wipes and hand sanitizer represent a low point of the COVID-19 pandemic, making homemade masks rates among the high points.

Volunteers across the country are sewing non-surgical face masks to make up for shortages of surgical masks worn by healthcare workers and first responders who are on the frontlines of the fight against the novel coronavirus.

Helping Others Together (HOT) Community Foundation, a West Valley nonprofit that raises funds for local charities, has amassed a small army of volunteers who will make and donate at least 10,000 washable, reusable masks to local hospitals, medical personnel, first responders, school districts, essential businesses and others who need them.

“It’s been quite the little project,” HOT President Beth McGee said of the operation via telephone, which initially started in mid-March as a personal project because she was feeling helpless watching news reports of personal protective equipment shortages as COVID-19 case rose across the country.

After reaching out to local nurses and getting a feel for how much need there was for masks here, Ms. McGee decided getting HOT involved made more sense, so she proposed the project to fellow board members, who come from cities throughout the West Valley. They all agreed.

The women developed a plan to make 500 masks, created a page on HOT’s website and began reaching out for volunteers via social media. The page went live March 22, the first requests for masks came in the following day, and the number of donations and volunteers has grown steadily, along with the organization’s mask goal.

As of April 15, an 18-member volunteer production team was assembling mask kits for 78 mask-sewers. Nearly 6,000 masks had been completed or were in progress, and 3,770 had been distributed.

“We will exceed 10,000 is my estimate,” Ms. McGee said.

To observe social distancing and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention safety guidelines, the group came up with an assembly-line approach.

Production team members cut elastic and fabric that are assembled into kits of 10 and numbered. Kits sit for at least 24 hours before mask-sewers pick them up on Ms. McGee’s porch. Mask-sewers texts Ms. McGee their kit numbers for tracking. When they’re done sewing, they bring the masks back and place them in a “contaminated” tote on the porch, for the production team retrieve and prepare for pickup by the distribution team.

It’s become a well-oiled machine.

More than half of the masks distributed as of April 15 went to healthcare workers, with the remainder going to essential organizations and businesses, other businesses and community members.

Banner Del E. Webb Medical Center in Sun City West was among mask recipients.

“The whole hospital officially knows HOT and how amazing you and your team are,” Kerri Burkett, a registered nurse with the hospital Medical-Surgery Oncology and Hospice, wrote the group. “Everyone keeps saying, ‘thank you, thank you, thank you, tell them THANK YOU!’ You have changed our daily lives for the better already.”

Litchfield Elementary School District is an essential organization that received masks for Food Services Department personnel who make and distribute more than 4,000 breakfasts and lunches to children every weekday.

Chef Ronald Beck, LESD Food Services director, said his staff is grateful for the masks.

"Our A-rated district relies on the community to help us provide educational excellence. HOT Community Foundation has come through for us at a crucial time,” Mr. Beck said. “The mask-sewers have been working as hard as our meal preparers. Their generosity is helping us keep our staff members and our community's children healthy. Face masks are like gold right now and we feel like we hit the jackpot!"

Mask-sewers can take as many kits of 10 as they can sew, Ms. McGee said. Several are on track to make 200, and one family is making 400.

Susy Aleman is sewing her way through 40 kits with the help of her children, 15-year-old Leo, 13-year-old Anna and 11-year-old Franco, who work with their mom in between online classes for school.

“Thank you, HOT, for this opportunity,” Ms. Aleman wrote the organization. “This is an excellent way for all our family members to be able to help our local community heroes together.”

A full list of volunteers and donors is listed on HOT’s mask initiative web page.

In addition to signing up to sew or to donate money for supplies, visitors to the site can request masks, watch a mask-making tutorial, follow the project’s progress and find links to HOT’s social media sites.

Ms. McGee said the organizations is overwhelmed at the response from volunteers and mask recipients.

“It’s pretty emotional for all of us,” she said.

Kelly O’Sullivan can be reached at kosullivan@newszap.com or 760-963-1697. For up-to-date local reporting on all things COVID-19, Independent Newsmedia has created a webpage dedicated to coverage of the novel coronavirus: #AZNEWSMEDIA