What’s the Buzz? 14,000 Cloth Masks and Counting …
Eau Claire-based effort unites hundreds around sewing
author & photographer by Justine Childs
A honeybee colony can be thought of as a single organism, and, if you listen very carefully, you can hear a low humming sound in the Chippewa Valley. It is the sound of hundreds of sewing machines, from farmhouses to family homes to city apartments. Just as bees in a hive unite in one purpose, people of all abilities are uniting in one purpose: making masks.
It became clear in March that the COVID-19 crisis wasn’t going away. It was rapidly expanding and wasn’t as far away as China or Italy anymore but right here in Wisconsin. Natalie Hanson’s husband, Peter, is an Eau Claire physician and president of the Wisconsin Radiological Society and, together with his colleagues, had been addressing concerns about the severity of the coronavirus and the shortage of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for health care providers, patients, staff, and the public. One day, as he was leaving for work it broke her heart to see him so anxious and desperate for solutions, and she asked, “What can I do for you today?” He looked directly into her eyes and said, ”Find a way to start making masks.”
One day, as he was leaving for work it broke her heart to see him so anxious and desperate for solutions, and she asked, “What can I do for you today?” He looked directly into her eyes and said, ”Find a way to start making masks.”
Natalie has many talents, but sewing is not one of them, so she quickly sprung into action and enlisted the help of friends. She reached out to Dr. Anne Ryan and Dr. Alicia Arnold to research and create an effective mask prototype. Using the recommendations outlined by the Centers for Disease Control for a washable, reusable all-fabric mask with fabric ties (to provide the most secure fit for all users), Natalie moved forward. With the help of Ann Sandler, owner of Stitch Supply Co. in Altoona, they developed a pattern and a video tutorial.
When the state Safer at Home order was in force, Karen Peikert identified businesses that would remain open and would act as collection sites for the finished masks; Festival Foods and Family Fare grocery stores agreed to help. Stephanie Butero, owner of Precision Quality Systems, and Ty Ellis (manager) with Jim Vaudreuil (owner) of Huebsch Services provided professional laundering, packaging, and delivery of masks. Heidi Boxx, co-owner of Boxx Sanitation, provided secure, brand-new collection boxes with locks. All of these services were – and continue to be – generously donated.
“Once we had a plan in place,” Natalie said, “it occurred to me that we needed a network of helpers, communicating and collaborating with one another to produce something meaningful and useful.”
She liked the idea of a sewing bee, a group “bee-ing” productive under pressure, and Mask Beez was launched. She created a private Facebook group called “Mask Beez” and invited a few of her friends who she thought would be interested in sewing or helping in some way. Word spread, and the Mask Beez community has grown to more than 1,700 members who have sewn and donated more than 14,300 masks. Those masks have been donated to numerous entities around the community, including hospitals, nursing homes, hospices, group homes, veterans homes, the Red Cross, food banks, family shelters, social workers, Wisconsin Department of Corrections, UW-Eau Claire Police, automotive and moving companies, as well as other essential businesses. Eileen Immerman, a Mask Beez advocate, connected with a U.S. trucker network that has made distribution possible.
Natalie has described the Mask Beez as “creative, resourceful, caring, generous, and productive bee-yond measure.” Difficult times can pull people apart or bring them together, and the efforts of this group have helped “flatten the curve” at no cost to recipients. I have been a part of Mask Beez and can attest to the encouragement, support, and kindness of the members who are quietly – and without seeking attention – creating a buzz about masks.