Kim Grayson Meadors, a coordinator in the COVID-19 Community Partners Coalition, compares it to a community barn raising or maybe the homefront in World War II where families and communities worked together while soldiers and sailors were fighting away from home.
Instead of a barn to show as a finished product, there are nearly 16,000 cloth face masks, thousands of plastic face shields, thousands of plastic mask clips or guards, ventilators loaned and others designed, all to prepare the Waco area for a possible surge of COVID-19 patients as the coronavirus pandemic hits home.
Most of the masks come from the Waco Masks Seamstress for COVID-19, an ad hoc group of several hundred seamstresses coordinated through Facebook, started by Reyna Reyes and her professional seamstress mother Matea Pareles only six weeks ago.
Within a week or so after sounding the call for people to sew masks, the group numbered some 150 seamstresses who were turning out several hundred a week. Now, thanks to the help of scores of volunteers and local businesses, output is hundreds per day with a total closing in on 16,000 cloth masks in multiple designs.
It’s enough that the group is now shifting to supply businesses requesting protective masks for their workers.
”We’re looking now at essential workers outside of health care,” said Reyes, who noted that H-E-B, Trane and H & B Packing had asked for masks.
For Reyes and her mother, sewing masks was a way of helping a community that had helped them. Her family had immigrated from Mexico in 1979 and Reyes remembered the Waco community helping them as they got their feet on the ground.
”I feel a sense of responsibility to this community. Caritas is one of the organizations that helped us. I remember receiving a box of food and gifts at Christmas time,” said Reyes, who serves on the Caritas board.
Reyes, now head of a social media marketing business, also worked 10 years as a trauma nurse for Hillcrest Medical Center and was in the emergency room when patients from the 2013 West explosion began arriving. It’s no surprise that sense of responsibility kicked in when she heard of a need for cloth masks for local medical and public health care workers anticipating a coronavirus patient surge.
”I honestly expected Texas to get the delivery of N95 (medical) masks . . . but when I saw the hotspots (of COVID-19 outbreaks), I began to realize Texas was not going to see a lot of them.”
She wasn’t alone and before long, the Waco Masks Seamstress for COVID-19 had snowballed to more than 1,000 Facebook members with help from Antioch Community Church, Church of the Open Door, Crestview Church of Christ, Central Presbyterian Church and more.
Meadors joined the team to help coordination efforts with local businesses, the McLennan County Medical Society, the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce and area churches. Kim Kazanas provided direction and CDC-approved designs for mask makers, with the latest designs suitable for sanitation through autoclaving.
As seamstresses churned out masks, Action Rental Center served as a distribution hub, with volunteers delivering masks each weekday morning with others laundering finished masks, then helping distribute them to Waco hospitals and the Family Health Center.
They were far from alone, however, as businesses, schools and organizations pitched in to help provide supplies of protective medical equipment, ventilators and more over the last six weeks.
Scott Salmans, owner and CEO of Waco’s WRS Group, a maker of health and medical education products, looked to see what his manufacturing firm could repurpose or supply. WRS appointed some workers to create masks, turning out about 3,500 before tapering down to approximately 50 a day now, Salmans said. WRS’s medical supply and local business connections also proved willing to help.
”We were working together with people willing to make it happen,” he said.
One of the maskmaking breakthroughs came through Shipp Belting Company, whose business includes making conveyor belts for food manufacturing. Talks on the need for masks between Salmans and Chase Sligh, Shipp Belting’s vice president of operations and a longtime friend, led to Shipp joining the collaboration.
The company secured a fabric-cutting die from Alpha Die Company, then bought two more with WRS contributing medical grade fabric from its supplies.
Shipp employees began cutting fabric squares for mask making kits, shaving considerable time for the group’s mask makers. It also allowed seven employees, working in rotation, to work on mask production, to the tune of 700 to 1,000 masks created daily.
”Our culture is about doing life with each other,” Sligh explained. “Seeing a need is something we look for.”
Midwest quilting supplier AccuQuilt saw a chance to help and donated fabric. Vossloh Fastening Systems in McGregor provided personal protective equipment.
Austin-based GelPro, which has a Waco plant that makes gel-filled floor mats for commercial and industrial use, retooled its production line to create medical face shields, with more than 10,000 already on order and plans to produce some 30,000 more.
McLennan Community College and Texas State Technical College lent ventilators used in their health care professions training to Waco hospitals. L3Harris aerospace engineers headed a team with help from Baylor University, MCC and Maker’s Edge makerspace to create an emergency ventilator design now under consideration by the Food and Drug Administration. Baylor, MCC and Hewitt Library’s 3D printers cranked out mask clips and face shield frames.
Six weeks after the Waco Masks Seamstress for COVID-19 started their sewing machines, the volunteer effort that mushroomed from it has met immediate needs and may shift into a different phase of help. Gov. Greg Abbott announced plans this week to restart parts of the state’s economy after initial efforts to slow the spread of coronavirus seem to be working and keeping cases within the state’s hospital capacity to treat them.
Meadors and her colleagues are ready to stand down, but only when they feel their job is done, when their raised barn stands finished.
“We want to look at an exit strategy, but not until needs are met,” she said. “If we’ve taken any of the fear or panic that our medical people would run out, we’ve done our job.”