“I was sheltering in place at home and needed to feel productive and wanted to help others,” said Gail Gresham. “I had friends who were sewing face masks, but I don’t sew. However, I found that they had a problem. Once a mask is made, how do you get it to someone who needs it?” Gresham recruited a team for a collaborative project, and launched a local mask production and distribution network called Face Masks for SLO County.

The team went to work creating a way to connect those who sew masks with those who need a mask. Volunteers on the team included Robin Smith, Health and Harmony Media; Mimi Naish, Chris Toews, Attorney; Consuelo Meux, SPOKES CEO;Brooke-Ashley Pool, SLO MakerSpace; Stacey Hunt, Ecologistics; Ron Field, M.D., and Bob Shanbrom.

These sewists are not making masks for medical workers or first responders. They are focusing on “community masks” for local residents who want a mask to go to the grocery store, pharmacy or other essential businesses where practicing social distancing may be difficult.

The network is based through the website www.facemasksforsloco.org. Within hours of the website being activated, more than 100 requests had been received from Grover Beach to Paso Robles. “One request was from an 83 year old woman who wanted a mask before picking up her prescription,” said Gresham. “Another was from a man who works at a grocery store all day and then cares for his elderly mother. He worries about passing on the virus to her.”

“We desperately need more volunteers to sew these masks so we can keep up with the requests for masks. The pattern is easy and it’s a great project for students sheltering at home – both girls and guys. It’s also an opportunity for students looking for community service projects for school, youth groups, and adultlocal service organizations and clubs” said Gresham. “If you need fabric and elastic, we can get it to you. We also need volunteers who can cut the material and donations of fabric.”

The masks are available for anyone in the community including the homeless. The group filled a large order from ECHO, El Camino Homeless Organization. “Many of the homeless have compromised health issues and they are very vulnerable,” said Gresham, who regularly volunteers at the shelter. “It’s just a best practice to help them stay safe and to prevent the spread of the virus in our community.  Providing higher risk individuals with masks, can have a positive impact that keeps all of us safer.”

To request a mask, anyone can register at the website. “We are not charging for the masks. However, we really could use donations of any size that go to a nonprofit,” Gresham explained. “The sewists are donating their time to make masks, but they often need elastic and other notions that we need to buy. Some masks need to be mailed, so we have postal expenses.” 

Face Masks for SLO County partnered with Ecologistics, Inc, a nonprofit based in Los Osos to manage the donations. “It is important to handle donations properly and to enable the funds to be tax-deductible. We are very thankful that Ecologistics stepped-up to help us,” explained Gresham.

The masks are available for pick-up at the sewist’s house or other venues. “We are in the process of developing a variety of places where a mask can be picked up such as a farmers’ market or local store.”

“It’s very important that medical-grade masks, like the N95 respirator or surgical masks be reserved for medical personnel only and they are in very short supply,” said Ron Field, MD, a North County pediatrician who assisted with the project.  “While cloth masks are less effective, the Centers for Disease Controlrecommends wearing cloth face coverings in public settings to slow the spread of the virus.” 

Gresham points out that the cloth masks are not a magic shield against the virus. “We all need to stay at home and Shelter in Place, as much as possible, practice social distancing, wash our hands frequently, and not touch our faces. A mask does not change those measures.” 

To request a mask, donate cotton fabric, volunteer as a sewist, or make a donation, visit www.facemasksforsloco.org.

Getting through this together, Atascadero