The last four days have seen something phenomenal happen in Alaska.
More than 1,800 people from all around the state have picked up their sewing kits, united by a common cause: to make as many surgical-style masks as possible in the coming weeks.
Alaska Mask Makers is the brainchild of Anchorage businesswoman Lorie Hardin, who thought of the idea while she was watching news and immediately sprang into action.
Lorie runs Birch Dispute Resolution, which offers certified divorce coaching, mediation and parenting services. Her business specializes in helping families dealing with trauma, high-conflict situations and custody issues.
Needless to say, the idea pretty much came from left field.
“I think everyone is feeling a sense of unease at not being able to affect things around us, and just general anxiety,” she says.
“One of my best friends is immuno-compromised and there’s nothing I can do to help. I was watching nurses try to make face masks for themselves on the news, so I created the group to help. By the end of the day we had 350 people wanting to help.”
Among them were registered nurse Tara Nelson, seamstress Ashley Olanna and UAA economics student Violet Kaye, who have now joined the leadership team.
Together, they’re connecting the group with local health facilities and developing patterns that comply with hospital recommendations.
“These are desperate measures,” Lorie explains, noting that authorities around the country are warning that shortages of medical supplies, including face masks, are imminent.
“I want to be clear, these are not PEE masks. The CDC made the recommendation to use a bandana in desperate times, and we thought this would work. We’re not making any claims about them, but we hope they might help.”
The plan is to distribute them to members of the community, such as healthcare workers, who understand that they’re a makeshift defense and do not provide 100% protection.
They are, however, better than nothing – especially in the face of a highly-infectious virus.
The group is already in contact with major hospitals, and they’re also planning to distribute them to health clinics, assisted living facilities, first responders and anyone else who may need them.
More than 400 masks were made in the campaign’s first four days. They’re being sewn as far and wide as Tok, Kotzebue, Fairbanks, Anchorage and the Matanuska-Susitna Valley. Lorie herself laughs and says she’s been so busy organizing the response that she hasn’t had time to stitch a single one.
“We wanted to support the community in any way we could. Right now, we’re just starting, so maybe the hospitals won’t want our masks. But in six weeks’ time, if they have nothing left, we’ll have them ready,” she says.
“I have a background in trauma informed care, I’m a mediator, and when something like this happens we can go from functioning okay to being more vulnerable quickly. One way we can keep ourselves more resilient is to keep a schedule and focus on something outside ourselves.”
A lot of the sewers have said as much, telling Lorie they felt helpless sitting at home watching the news, not knowing what they could do to make a difference in a crisis.
“It’s so much bigger than me,” she says. “I’m a tiny piece in this process.”
She’s now busy organizing “team captains” in each area to collate the masks and make sure they’re delivered to the right places in each area. She’s also trying to streamline the Facebook group to ensure people joining the campaign can find the information they need as quickly as possible… all while running her business remotely and trying to home-school her children.
At the moment, efforts are based largely on surgical-style masks, but Lorie is already anticipating a potential pivot to include surgical-style caps. Most of them are being made of pure quilter’s cotton, but she also says that may change as supplies dwindle and the CDC issues new advice.
“We need to be flexible,” she says. “We don’t know what’s going to happen next.”
If you would like to get involved, please contact Alaska Mask Makers on Facebook.