Mask Up Kane County crafts 40,000 masks for the Fox Valley

  • Michelle Meyer, executive director of Mutual Ground in Aurora, gives a thumbs-up to the 300 volunteers of Mask Up Kane County for the donation of masks.

    Michelle Meyer, executive director of Mutual Ground in Aurora, gives a thumbs-up to the 300 volunteers of Mask Up Kane County for the donation of masks. Courtesy of Mutual Ground

 
 
Updated 5/9/2020 1:02 PM

A Kane County grass-roots organization of volunteer seamstresses, crafters and other DIYers that manufactures face masks for health care workers and nonprofits has now distributed more than 40,000 units and is on track to hit the 60,0000-mark by the end of the month.

"Mask Up Kane County" -- which got its start even before Illinois enacted social distancing and stay at home orders -- is being hailed as a model community response to ensure that front line workers have the personal protective equipment they need to fight that COVID-19 pandemic.

 

And as states begin to ease those restrictions, the masks will play a crucial role in the effort to prevent new surges of the deadly disease.

"The masks we've received are nothing short of amazing," said Michelle Meyer, executive director of Mutual Ground, an Aurora shelter for victims of domestic and sexual abuse. "When we got them, we did not have many masks in stock and no clear way to acquire more. Now the staff is wearing these new masks and we've been giving them to our residents. It's enabled us to continue to serve our residents in the midst of this pandemic."

Jumping into action

Just days after the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned the American public for the first time to prepare for local outbreaks of COVID-19, Kane County resident Christine Schirtzinger launched what she calls "a bit of a project with masks."

Trained as a registered nurse with 13 years of experience in intensive care unit and emergency room settings, Schirtzinger recognized that local front line health care workers and vital nonprofit service providers would soon face a critical shortage of personal protective equipment in the midst of the pandemic.

So she researched designs on the internet, recruited a few friends and colleagues, and began an effort to sew and distribute masks.

Word about Schirtzinger's project spread quickly, and within a month the network -- which now numbered about 100 -- had distributed more than 3,000 masks to protect health workers in local ICUs, ERs, clinics, rehab centers, as well as workers and clients at the country's shelters and food pantries.

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"I knew that sewing masks to donate would help so many people," said lifelong sewing enthusiast Brenda Jackson of Geneva. "What I didn't know was how much it would help me get through this pandemic. Sewing masks has saved me too. It's saved me by giving me an outlet to work through my feelings of anxiety, stress, fear. While I have this purpose, this project going, I can keep my mental health in check as well. It's been such a blessing all around, really. It brought all us together."

Mask-making kits

But Schirtzinger knew that 3,000 masks would not be enough as the disease continued to spread.

To ramp up production further, she and her teammates developed a DIY "no sew" kit containing instructions and enough simple materials -- car cloth material, paper clips, rubber bands and zip ties -- to make 25 masks.

The kits are now distributed to 300-plus volunteers, who keep five masks for themselves and return the remaining 20 to the new organization -- "Mask Up Kane County."

Upon return, each mask goes through a two-hour "pathogen free" process in a 140+ degree sauna. They are then bagged and delivered directly to local nonprofits and health care workers on the frontlines.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"Let's just say, in a perfect world, no one would be wearing one of these masks," Schirtzinger said. "But since our world is not perfect right now, we were looking for a mask that was simple to make, easy and inexpensive to distribute and effective for the people who need them."

What makes the project scalable is the switch from sewn materials to nonwoven fabrics. Peter Tsai, the materials scientist who invented the electrostatic charging technology for N95 masks, recommended using car shop towels as mask material. Besides their easy availability, the blue towels do a better job of filtering droplets than cloth.

And it's not just the recipients who are benefiting from the volunteer effort.

"Mask Up Kane County has made an important impact on my life during the COVID-19 pandemic," said volunteer Sue Kramer Sanders of St. Charles. "Most importantly, I have been impressed with how our community rallied during this crisis. People from the Fox Valley stepped up to use whatever skill they had to supply masks for Fox Valley areas, hospitals, shelters, nursing homes, fire departments and other first responders."

Surge in demand

Perhaps not surprisingly, the demand for masks is growing as states seek to reopen their economies while maintaining social distancing practices.

"Making 40,000 masks is only possible because of the 300 volunteers who all bring their unique skills to this project," Schirtzinger noted. "We have those who source the materials, bundle the supplies to get to the crafters, those who craft the masks and those who deliver. It's an amazing team, working together seven days a week."

But Schirtzinger worries Mask Up Kane County may not be able to keep up with the need.

She's hoping to expand the volunteer network of mask makers and is also accepting donations for materials and supplies at the group's new website maskupkanecounty.org, or via email at info@maskupkanecounty.org.

Each mask costs 23 cents to make, and the group has just enough materials on hand to create and distribute 13,000 more masks.

"My greatest fear is not having masks for the people who need them," Schirtzinger said. "There are still a lot of people and organizations that can't afford to buy them."

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