Mask marvels: Homespun effort adds extra protection for COVID-19 front liners

It’s family ties as three generations are pitching in to make free protective masks for nurses and those on the frontlines in the COVID-19 pandemic. Dagsboro resident Linda Steele holds one of the more than 100 masks made as of Friday. Seated, at left, Ms. Steele’s daughter Brittany Steele-Murray, and her mother, Marisa Caler. (Delaware State News/Glenn Rolfe).

DAGSBORO – One of Linda Milutin Steele’s passions is stomping on grapes to make fine wine.

She has another skill: sewing.

As Dogfish Head Brewery in Milton converts a portion of its production to making alcohol-based hand sanitizer, American auto manufacturers switch to making ventilators and husband Mark Steele – as Indian River School District’s superintendent – deals with educational challenges in stressful times, Ms. Steele is leading a masked approach in the grass-roots effort to combat the spread of COVID-19.

The kitchen/dining table in their Dagsboro home is now a makeshift sewing operation, producing masks that are donated free to friends in the medical field and those on the front lines in the coronavirus pandemic.

“Even though they are not medical grade, the nurses, some don’t have any,” said Ms. Steele. “Some are getting the one mask that is not meant to be reused. And they are being told to reuse them because that’s all they have – because of the shortage. So, some of these nurses are wearing these on top of those, because they can wash these. Then that will protect the one that they are using.”

The effort began Monday. It has since expanded to encompass three generations – Ms. Steele’s daughter Brittany Steele-Murray and her mother Marisa Caler.

Friends are donating material and supplies.

Ms. Steele’s aunt, Olive Milutin, stops by to help with cutting and ironing.

“Both my mom and my Aunt Olive, they are in their 80s, and they are really working hard,” said Ms. Steele.

Protective masks accompanied by “thank you” notes are packaged and ready for local pickup.

“I watch every day as they make the masks and with each and every one they make I get more proud of them,” said Mr. Steele. ” It’s even fun just to listen to their stories!”

The nursing community has been canvassed.

“My daughter is a nurse,” said Ms. Steele. “She reached out to her fellow nursing friends. We’re taking orders and they are going as fast as I am sewing them.”

By Friday, they had produced well over 100 masks. Then came a request Friday for an order of 50 more.

“We’ve got half of those filled already,” Ms. Steele said.

Completed masks for pickup are packaged and sealed in zip-lock bags or envelopes, labeled and placed on a chair on the front porch of the Steele home on Hudson Road.

“Those are local pickups,” said Ms. Steele-Murray, a registered nurse who cares for special needs kids at the Howard T. Ennis School in Georgetown. “I used to be a nurse in Baltimore, so I have some friends over that way that have requested some. I have shipped to Baltimore, Georgia, and other areas in Maryland other than Baltimore,”

Prior to Howard T. Ennis, she worked at Peninsula Regional Medical Center and the ICU at Beebe Hospital.

“I have a lot of friends that are still working in those locations,” said Ms. Steele-Murray. “So, I put a post on Facebook, just asking, ‘Is there anybody that would be interested in a homemade mask? It’s not going to protect you from the virus alone, but it’s just an extra layer that can help you prevent your other mask from getting soiled.’ Within minutes we had like 85 comments of people on that single post requesting masks.”

From her Dagsboro home, Linda Steele works on another triple-layered protective mask, one of more than 100 produced thus far in a grassroots effort that has enlisted donations of materials and expanded to three generations. Masks are free to nurses and those on the frontline in the medical field during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Delaware State News/Glenn Rolfe).

Once masks are completed for those initial requests “then we’ll go ahead and make another post and start taking some more,” Ms. Steele-Murray said.

And in every mask, Ms. Steele is stitching extra protection.

“I am using mostly cotton. I am trying to do a variety of patterns,” said Ms. Steele. “But my most important thing is three layers. I lot of people are doing two layers only, but for extra protection I want to do the third layer. And I am making sure to include that this is a very thick, tightly woven cotton layer. I feel like it’s a little more protection.”

The day starts early for Ms. Steele at her Singer sewing machine. She often works into the late afternoon or early evening. Yes, there is an occasional bathroom break.

“I wake up. I grab my coffee. I start sewing,” she said. “Time gets away on me and the next thing I know, Mark is like, ‘Well, what are we doing for dinner?’ I look up and it’s like 5:30. Normally, I don’t do a lot of fast-food stuff. I usually cook good meals every day. That has been the hard thing. And my laundry is backing up … I may have to get to that.”

Material donations have come from friends, such as Karen Ware and Teresa Shockley. Another friend, Brandy Timmons was stopping by to drop off more stuff Friday.

It’s the ironing stage for free protective masks produced by Dagsboro resident Linda Steele and family in a grassroots effort to help curb the COVID-19 spread.

“I always like to help wherever needed, and Linda and I have been friends forever,” said Ms. Shockley. “When she told me that she wanted to make masks and help however she could, I knew she could do it.”

Ms. Shockley doesn’t sew. She says she tried it once, noting husband Eddie Shockley “bought her a sewing machine and everything.”

“I donated the material I had and thread, so she could make as many as possible,” Ms. Shockley said. “Both Linda and her daughter Brittany are working hard. I will say what I have always believed: my heroes are ordinary people doing extraordinary things. These two are heroes.”

Each protective mask is accompanied by words of thanks.

“Brittany has also taken it upon herself to include ‘Thank You’ notes in each one that we are giving away, thanking the medical people for their service with what they are doing,” said Ms. Steele.

And there is turnabout. In addition to grateful thanks from mask recipients, Ms. Steele said they received a special thank you gift: a bottle of wine and two glasses engraved with: “Surviving Social Distancing … One Sip at a Time.”

How long this homegrown mask marvel effort continues depends on demand.

In background, Linda Steele is at the sewing machine as her mom, Marisa Caler, left, and aunt, Olive Milutin, prepare material in the mask-making effort.

“As long as I can, as long as the demand is there. I’m just trying to do what I can. It may not be perfect, but I am just trying to give back,” said Ms. Steele.

“I plan on going until there is no more need. Then, if there are people working out in the retail – pharmacies, grocery stores, everybody has got to be protective. It is like rampant. I follow very closely what is going on in Italy. That’s where my parents are from. And it is very heartbreaking. Some people don’t understand the seriousness of it, and the danger.”

“It’s just taking whatever resources we can and doing whatever we can to help those people who are working in hospitals and are constantly getting exposed,” said Ms. Steele-Murray. “It’s just doing our part to help them as much as we can.”


Helpful Coronavirus links

Delaware Division of Health Coronavirus Page
CDC: About the Coronavirus Disease 2019
CDC: What to do if You Are Sick
Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center
AP News Coronavirus Coverage
Reopening Delaware: Resources for Businesses
Delaware Phase 2 guidance

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