Army of volunteers and do-it-yourself sewers help fill the need for masks

ROCKFORD — From the most protective N95 masks to homemade ones crafted with household items, residents, organizations and businesses are taking matters and mask-making materials into their own hands to help during the COVID-19 pandemic.


The acute shortage of masks for health care professionals and other essential workers has spurred what is perhaps the largest nationwide volunteer effort devoted to a single cause since World War II. There’s no accounting for just how many people have been making masks, but individuals here and across the country have taken to needle and thread to make sure people have the protective equipment they need.


Among them is Rockford resident Paula Hendrickson, who has been sewing masks at home with fabric that she already had and using T-shirts instead of elastic for the face mask straps. Hendrickson said she ordered a spool of elastic more than two weeks ago. It hasn’t arrived yet, so she’s had to improvise.


"I thought, ’How many masks could I make out of this?’ So far I’m at 44.…It’s just fun to do," Hendrickson said. "There aren’t a lot of things we can do right now to help out. We can’t go out and help people do stuff without violating the stay-at-home order. So I thought, ’Well’ what can I do here?’ I can make masks."


Gov. JB Pritzker has repeatedly pressed the federal government for more protective equipment, and hospitals have had to use a combination of manufactured personal protective equipment and homemade face masks to keep everyone covered.


"This where homemade masks are critical. At this point, we have distributed all the homemade masks we have and haven’t even begun to fill this need," Mercyhealth Vice President Barb Bortner said in an e-mail. Mercyhealth operates the Javon Bea hospitals on North Rockton Avenue and Riverside Boulevard.


Powertrain Rockford, an industrial equipment manufacturer, donated more than 295 N95 masks to OSF Saint Anthony Medical Center after hearing that frontline workers were having trouble getting the proper equipment.


"We brought in a large garbage bag and she was like, ’Wow, how many did you guys make?’ — thinking that they were homemade masks. And I’m like no, we have actually over 295 N95 masks and she was just ecstatic," said Mindy Nitz, the company’s human resources manager. "She’s like, ’Where did these come from? Oh my god, this is wonderful.’ So it was a really nice feeling to know that you were helping out somebody."


Womanspace, a Rockford nonprofit, has launched an ambitious 10,000 Face Masks Initiative to help get face masks to the people who need them most.


The organization received a $10,000 emergency grant from Rotary District 6420 to cover the cost of raw materials. Womanspace currently has volunteers at Mohop, a footwear manufacturing company, cutting and sorting materials that will eventually be packaged into mask-making kits and given to volunteers to assemble. Each kit can produce about 60 masks. Once the masks are made and returned to Womanspace, they are distributed to local hospitals.


Since the project began on March 23, the group has sent kits to make more than 2,400 masks to volunteers and distributed 400 masks to local hospitals.


Hannah Warren, marketing director at Womanspace, has been impressed by the energy the volunteers have brought to the fight against the pandemic.


"We even have volunteers who are still essential workers who are doing volunteer work to make masks in their spare time," Warren said. "It’s just incredible to see people have passion for wanting to be able to help out."


For some, mask making has been a way to serve the community — and relieve their cabin fever.


Tammy Rentschler, cheerleading coach at Belvidere North High School, has been trying to create a new normal since she has been forced to stay at home.


"My new routine has been to get up, have a cup of coffee and try to crank out like five masks first thing in the morning," she said. So far, she has made more than 100 masks.


Nichole Healy’s, regular job is as a hairstylist, and she also owns a sewing company called Green Love. For her, mask making has provided a routine that keeps her busy — and generated some income while she is unable to work as a stylist. She charges $10 per mask.


"At first, I really struggled with not working because I had such a social job and I was always busy. So to suddenly be considered nonessential was just hard to wrap my head around," Healy said. "I’m just trying to keep food on the table and trying to keep people covered because I feel like this is getting really intense for everyone."


Healy doesn’t charge for every mask, however. She gives some away and keeps some in her car in case she runs into a front-line worker.


"If I go to the store and I see the register lady doesn’t have one, I’ll run out and grab it and just be like, ’Here, you don’t have one. You’re working on the front line for us. You should at least have a mask," Healy said.


Shaquil Manigault; smanigault@rrstar.com; @RrstarShaquil