CU Mask Makers respond to high mask demand during COVID-19 pandemic

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Photo Courtesy of CU Mask Makers

A sewing station where CU Mask Makers created face masks for the coronavirus pandemic sits in a livingroom.

By Karena Tse, Staff Writer

When sewist Megan Meyer first came across the CU Mask Makers on Facebook, the group totaled four members. However, after about a month, the 300-person network had produced and distributed over 7,000 masks across Champaign County.

“I was completely floored by that number,” Meyer said. “I am so grateful to be part of a community that can bring so much good into the world.”

This service came at no small cost: the participating Champaign-Urbana sewists donated copious amounts of time, hard work and materials to this Herculean effort. The operation was intense and coordinated — it had to be to fulfill the myriad requests they received from both corporations and individuals. 

The group tended to local mask needs of any magnitude. Their donees included organizations like Carle Foundation Hospital, Christie Clinic, McKinley Health Center and even specific families and individuals in need. Once the CU Mask Makers had become a known resource, they were constantly managing requests coming in from all directions.

“Things kind of really ramped up because people knew that there was a place where they could put big-time asks,” said Champaign County board member Mike Ingram. “We’ve had different asks from 10 to 20, to 200 to 2000.”

Like Meyer, Ingram took on an administrative role within the group. However, his particular role did not include mask making. He instead spent his time processing requests, picking up and delivering masks and distributing materials amongst the sewists. 

Group members varied widely in terms of roles and skillsets. Marielle McNabney considered herself a beginner sewist when she joined the group. Yet, she was able to make valuable contributions to the effort and found solace in the mask-making community. 

“I feel part of this community, and I feel like I can barely sew,” McNabney said. “I still feel included even though I am not able to produce the numbers or quality as some of the other people, and I think that’s what’s really nice. If you’re trying if you’re making something usable and if you want to help, that’s fine.”

Being able to help protect their community was an important source of fulfillment and comfort for the mask makers. Providing service strengthened their sense of agency in the face of shaky circumstances.

However, the volunteers were not just fighting a pandemic. Within their efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19, they faced another oppressive force: burnout. 

Volunteer burnout is a universal phenomenon among groups like the CU Mask Makers, which happens when people who want nothing more than to serve their communities give more than they can physically and mentally afford. 

While many of the mask makers were passionate sewists who enjoyed the art form, the kind of sewing they were doing as volunteers was far from leisurely. Meyer recalled a three-day stretch during which she produced a total of 100 masks.

“I was just exhausted; I basically spent three days of nonstop sewing and cutting and all these things,” she said. “It’s not just a mental burnout, it’s a physical burnout. And the guilt that you feel about being burnt out, it turns into this very vicious cycle.”

Ingram echoed the frustration of being constantly outpaced by the needs in the community. Like Meyer, he struggled to reconcile his personal limits with his drive to help.

“I’ll do an overnight shift at the women’s shelter and the next day someone will ask me to do something, and I’ll miss the message because I’m sleeping,” Ingram said. “And then I’ll feel bad that I wasn’t able to help. And it’s like, you don’t have to fix everything all the time, but that’s what you want to do.” 

Thankfully, the group members were able to find support and understanding in their fellow volunteers because the CU Mask Makers are not just a task force — they are a colorful collective of passionate citizens who are taking care of not only the greater community, but also each other. 

In the midst of uncertainty and isolation, this sort of open-armed compassion is key. Meyer hopes the mask makers’ acts of service help community members feel connected and cared for.

“I know that the lockdown is extremely difficult for many people and that this is a very trying and scary time,” Meyer said. “But I really hope that when people receive these masks, they can look at them and think, ‘Somebody put their time, their effort and their heart into trying to better the community,’ and I think that is something really beautiful.”

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