Karen Jones, 13, of Oak Lawn, holds up one of the many facemasks she made and donated to the Community Mask Initiative in the village.
By Dermot Connolly
An Oak Lawn woman’s plan to alleviate the facemask shortage by getting people to make them at home during the coronavirus crisis has become a community project, with area residents donating hundreds for distribution to people at risk.
Lydia Blachowicz, a member of St. Gerald Parish in Oak Lawn, said she got the idea from a similar project she heard about in Evansville, Ind., where volunteers were asked to sew fabric masks for people in Deaconess Hospital.
“ Since Oak Lawn has so many nursing homes and health care providers in addition to the hospital (Advocate Christ Medical Center), I thought there might be a need,” said Blachowicz on Monday.
“ I emailed Mayor Sandra Bury to see what she thought and she responded very quickly. She was really supportive,” said Blachowicz, who credited the mayor for naming the project, the Community Mask Initiative.
“ By the next day, she had placed a collection box at the Village Hall and arranged for the Oak Lawn Emergency Management Agency to coordinate distribution of the masks,” she said.
People donating facemasks can put them in plastic bags and drop them off in the collection box, which is located in front of the police desk on the west side of Oak Lawn Village Hall, 9446 Raymond Ave.
To get the word out about the project, Blachowicz contacted Annamarie Blaha, president of the St. Gerald Women’s Club, who posted information about the initiative on the group’s Facebook page and contacted other parishes in the area.
“ It’s really amazing,” said Blaha on Sunday, noting that the information she posted about a week ago, including directions for making the masks out of cotton fabric, had already been shared 176 times. More than 30,600 people were reached, according to Facebook.
People of all ages are involved, including Karen Jones, 13, a home-schooled seventh-grader who takes religion classes at St. Gerald. An avid sewer, she volunteered to make the masks on her sewing machine in her spare time.
“I have the ability to do it and I found a way to help people,” said Karen, who has been sewing for six years. “So far, I have made 18 and my goal is to make 100.”
“I usually make a lot of purses, clothing, and blankets too,” she said.
A family in Worth have made a group project out of it, with everyone contributing something. And women from St. Mary’s Parish in Mokena have also volunteered.
“ Even people in Manhattan Beach, Calif. have also reached out through Facebook,” said Blaha.
The need for masks will likely increase, following reports that the Centers for Disease Control is considering recommending that everyone use masks like this to cover their faces while outside, while leaving the surgical masks and disposable masks for medical staff. So far, the CDC only recommends that people with symptoms of coronavirus cover their faces in public.
“ I'm happy but not too surprised to see how this has grown. I think while people are staying at home, they still want to feel connected to their community and to help however they can,” Blachowicz said.
“ For people who like to sew, it's a natural fit. And they often have a lot of material around. Ironically, I don't sew myself. My mom, a retired nurse, is an excellent seamstress and made a batch of masks to donate. I've been busy answering emails and ironing out details as we go.
“ This initiative started with my suggestion but the work to make it happen has been done by (Bury and Blaha) and everyone who's donated fabric or masks,” said Blachowicz.
“ Those St. Gerald ladies who started this, I just can’t thank them enough.,” said Bury on Monday.
She said hundreds of masks have already been donated, and she has been dropping them off at the Park Lawn social service agency, and local clinics serving cancer patients and others that are experiencing shortages.
The mayor pointed out that in addition to the hospital, Oak Lawn has numerous clinics and senior citizen residents where they could be useful.
Blaha noted that the cloth masks do not replace the disposable masks needed by medical staff in a hospital setting, and Advocate Christ officials have not requested them. But the fabric masks, usually made of cotton with a lining of cotton or flannel, can be used over the disposable masks to prolong their usefulness.
“ I cannot imagine being a nurse, doctor, or a paramedic on the front lines today, and coming in contact with people and not having a mask of any kind. This is a small effort to share talents to help those around us,” said Blaha.
“ I am truly appreciative of the volunteers’ kindness and generosity. If by any chance the medical field does not run out of supplies when this is all over, any masks that are made will not go to waste. We will be certain to get them to those who can use them, like vulnerable seniors and cancer patients,” she added.
Directions and a pattern for making the masks are available on the St. Gerald Women’s Club Facebook page. More information may also be obtained by emailing email@example.com.