Face Mask Challenge

On March 16, 2020, Cheryl Hoopes began to coordinate FACE MASK Challenge / Kent County, Maryland.  She created a Facebook page and recruited people to make cloth masks for those working on the front lines during the COVID-19.  This team also developed the distribution system and then, when these needs were met, created a “mask bank” which continues to operate.  By the last week of May, 5,000 masks had been made by 75 volunteers!  Cheryl, who volunteers as the coordinator of Sumner Hall’s Children’s Education Program, asked us to publicize the initiative and encourage folks to participate.  Mask Drop-Offs and Pick-Ups were set up on the back porch of Sumner Hall and on the front porch of Cheryl’s home.  To request a mask or to learn more about this initiative, contact Cheryl via email: admin@sumnerhall.org.

Now, with the first sewing rush slowing down, Cheryl’s reflections recall the short but meaningful history of this initiative to date.

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Face Masks: Covering and Uncovering

                                                                    Reflections of Chery Hoopes

“There is a prophet within us, forever whispering that behind the seen lies the immeasurable unseen.”

Frederick Douglass, 1862 

Numbers, time, face masks, people helping one another: the face mask challenge. The story seemed straightforward, as we surge-sewed each day to see how many masks we could make in order to fill the requests on our list.

March 16 – Schools and public places closed.

March 18 – 1st COVID-19 death on Maryland.

March 22 – The Facebook page was created: FACE MASK Challenge / Kent County, MD – the day before all non-essential businesses closed. Facebook recorded 1,133 hits to the page because people wanted to DO something. Just like the WWII bandage makers at Chestertown’s Defense Plant before them, the 2020 COVID sewing team was forming – quickly. Most were sewing, but some, who didn’t know how to do that, were ironing, cutting, donating sewing machines, fabric, thread, and “ear savers” (for nurses) or driving the deliveries.

March 22 – The sewing began, with a team of approximately 75 volunteers.

April 6  – 500 masks were delivered to Heron Point, the largest one-day delivery. (The hospital total was 420, filled before April 6th, and the Kent Center received a similar number.)

April 14 – The day with the largest number of porch pick-ups and deliveries.  We found out who needed what through phone calls, emails, texts, word of mouth and Facebook messages. A full-time job for the first month  – with calls initially coordinated through the health department, the system was simple, fluid and effective: requests came in, orders were filled as new masks came in, then people picked them up. On this particular day, 17 people came and went, with more than one woman saying that she felt like she was a part of some kind of an undercover team, as zip-lock bags full of masks flew back and forth. The electricity and excitement were energizing, and it was fun!

April 17 –  After an SOS for 347 masks came to our Facebook page, the system showed 1,811 hits – the highest # of daily views: people were keeping track and responding immediately. Within 4 days, 644 had come in. It was like that the whole time.

May 3 – The demand began to diminish.

May 27 – 5,000 masks had been made by this one Sumner Hall-sponsored initiative!  And we had over 600 masks still in the “bank.” Orders continue to trickle in, and the Mask Tree downtown is still stocked for anyone who needs a mask.  Most of the sewing is done –  at least for now.  But the heart, head and hands work for the marginalized continues.

Across the County:  Many people have been sewing masks in our area – church groups, another local Facebook group, quilt guilds, and others who were invisible – individuals quietly sewing and donating to friends, family, and organizations on their own.  And this was the beauty of the larger “team.” People everywhere were doing their parts, with each person’s contributions, no matter the size, being a part of the whole.  Every order was filled – including headbands with buttons for nurses, and even a face shield for a family member of a hearing-impaired boy.

A continuing difficulty: Early on in this process, we called the 2 large nursing homes in Chestertown. They were places with obvious need, plus they were on the health department’s list. In response to the first phone call made to offer masks, the administrator on the other end of the phone line was curt, impatient and accusing (“You’re selling these, I guess.”) He said that his institution was not interested in receiving any. It appeared that the PPE needs of the other nursing home had also been met.  By contrast, each of the representatives of the smaller nursing homes was beyond grateful. About a month later, we received word from women needing masks in each of the larger, local nursing homes. They were desperate to receive the numbers needed, with each person telling a similar story – that the food and housekeeping workers had been passed over when in-house masks were distributed. Told instead to “hold their sleeves over their faces,” they had nothing but their sweatshirts separating them from the disease. Our clandestine deliveries were like presents, appearing without any specific request so that no recipient could be implicated, risk losing job or continue to be without at least a homemade cotton mask.

“…..I would I could make visible the wounds [of this system] upon my soul.”

Frederick Douglass, 1842