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06 Dec 2021

Kildare's mask crusaders: The volunteers making and mending our PPE at home

Helping out: Hardworking Kildare women making masks and stitching gowns

All across County Kildare, kitchen tables have been turned into production lines, children have been press-ganged into service and sewing machines turned into military equipment to help fight in the war against Covid-19.

While medical grade masks and other PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) has been flown in from abroad to protect staff in hospitals and other clinical settings, an army of volunteers has sprung up to ‘fill in the gaps’ and make other protective items for vulnerable people.

The Masketeers

Sallins woman Martina Shannon is the driving force behind a collective of seamstresses called The Free Masketeers. Together they are stitching disposable single-use masks, which, while non-surgical grade, are suitable for vulnerable people visiting a hospital or going into a nursing home.

Martina runs Imagination Station, which provides art and craft workshops from its base in Sallins and at the Moat Theatre in Naas. But when the lockdown hit, she found herself ‘twiddling my thumbs. I was going mad with nothing to do’.

Having made one mask on request for a supermarket employee from the load of non-woven fabric she had in stock for children’s workshops, she hit on the bright idea of putting a call out on Facebook to see if anyone else wanted one, having estimated she had enough material on hand to make around a thousand masks.

“I was inundated!” she said. Demand was coming from hospital administrators, charities and nursing homes — as well as people in vulnerable situations. It is these stories which really affected Martina.

“One lady who wanted a mask is a lone parent to a son with asthma. He was terrified to leave the house, and she couldn’t get masks. I sent her 10, so now she can go for a walk with her son,” she said.

The masks are free to users but Martina put out a call for financial donations to help her buy more material. Within three days she had garnered €1,000 in donations — enough to make another 25,000 masks.

She appealed for assistance sewing. “Some 50 people are doing it now, it’s getting bigger and bigger. The volunteers are getting so much sense of purpose from doing this, they are thrilled to be feeling useful,” she said.

Volunteers are based in Sallins, Naas, Carlow, Blessington, Ballymore Eustace, Dublin, Rathcoole and beyond. With another orders for up to another 10,000 masks in her email inbox, Martina now needs more donations, which can be made via the website www.thefreemasketeers.com.

Hobby to volunteer

Meanwhile, Agata Betlej, who lives in Robertstown, has turned her hobby of sewing into a volunteering role with the Masks 4 All Ireland — Sewists Against Covid-19 Facebook group, which she joined around three weeks ago.

So far she has made around 100 masks which have been donated to local GPs, nurses, vulnerable people and those volunteering.

The group uses a standardised pattern to create reusable, comfortable cotton masks, to be used with a disposable filter such as a paper towel, which are free to those who need them. The group helps organise donations for volunteers to source fabric locally — although Agata says that “it’s easier to find pixie dust than elastic at the moment!”

The masks take a significant amount of time to make, as the cotton must be washed several times and the fabric cut, pleated and ironed in a certain way.

“I have a seven and a half year old helper, Alice, who is good at cutting and putting the elastic into masks,” said the proud mum.

Demand for the masks is high, and the group prioritises nursing homes as recipients. “People requesting them are extremely grateful,” said Agata. “I have dropped them to surgeries in Clane and to nurses and to the pharmacy, and got the message that they love them because they are so much more comfortable than what they were wearing before.”

Donations of cotton fabric would help the group, and Agata is asking people to check sewing boxes, spare rooms and attics for any spare fabric which could be repurposed.

Other locals involved in the initiative include Veronica Moran in Robertstown, Agnes Howard in Derrinturn, Catherine Henvey in Kill and Yvonne Winters in Allenwood.

Polish native Agata, who has lived in Ireland since the end of 2006, sees making masks as a way to give back to her local community.

She remembers the friendliness of neighbours who welcomed the family to Robertstown almost six years ago and enjoys the local sense of community. “Home is here,” she said.

Fashion twist

Fashion designer Elaine Honey from Kill has turned her hand from creating trendy clothes to stylish masks. The 100% cotton masks are non-medical grade but reusable, and are made of bright, funky colours for the mask wearer who wants to make a statement! She has even created Manchester United and Liverpool masks for football fans.

Over the last three weeks (as of Sunday), she has made 531 masks, of which 283 have been donated.

“I have donated to various different people, from carers to hospital staff and to my local pharmacy, who are distributing to the elderly in my community,” she said.

“I’m selling these masks to the general public to help me, help others. With the money generated from these sales, I’m buying more fabric and supplies to make and donate to our Frontline workers.”

Elaine is selling her uniquely coloured masks for €7 each, or four for €25, plus postage — and the money goes towards buying new materials.

To order, contact her via Facebook or Instagram: Elaine Honey Designs or by email : elainebhoney@gmail.com .

Saving the PPE

When Naas woman Claire Heavey took some homemade masks into Naas hospital, she ended up with the huge voluntary task to fix some of the unsuitable Chinese PPE which had made its way to the hospital.

The hospital had judged the short-sleeved PPE unsuitable for its needs and, in early April, boxes were sitting in storage.
Claire’s homemade masks were not suitable for surgical use, although they were welcomed by the hospital clerical staff — but during a conversation, she asked one of the Naas doctors why nobody was fixing the badly-needed PPE.

The Grafton Academy of Fashion Design graduate and dressmaker volunteered to adjust the gowns, using fabric from some of them to lengthen the sleeves of others.

A doctor dropped off some trial items to her home the following day — and since then Claire estimates she has done around 750 gowns.

“The gowns are the papery ones that the doctors wear over their normal scrubs, but the sleeves were so short that their arms were exposed. I extended the arm around eight inches, and put elastic on the cuff.”

Her two older children Faye (12), Moya (11) have helped out hugely with cutting and folding the gowns and their younger siblings Devin (9) and Rowen (6) have also pitched in.

The family completed their first full box in a day — “We did nothing else but cut, sew and fold!” — but since then have taken a more moderate place and incorporated the work into their daily lockdown routine.

“The gowns had been put into stores as they were inappropriate stock, they never would have been touched,” said Claire.

And although there is a fair bit of work involved in altering the disposable PPE, which is thrown away after use, Claire and her family are delighted that they were able to help repurpose something which might otherwise have been thrown away into useful protection equipment in the fight against Covid-19.

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