Sewing for Safety: Flint’s Shay Oliver and friends craft homemade face masks for health workers

FLINT, Michigan— Though they’re no replacement for the CDC-approved N95 respirators, homemade face masks are becoming an important part of COVID-19 prevention, even if the most they can do is bring peace of mind.


COVID-19’s rapid spread across the country has brought about severe shortages in N95 masks to the point where hospitals are asking for individuals to donate any they may have. As this shortage continues, the practice of making masks at home out of cotton or similar fabrics has become popular. Some hospitals like McLaren Flint have even released their own set of instructions for making the best face masks possible.


Members of the Flint community like fashion designer Shay Oliver, have taken on the task of crafting these homemade face masks. Oliver and her friends across Genesee County have also been distributing them to healthcare facilities throughout the city.


“It was literally me going on Facebook … seeing who was willing to help out [and] putting a Facebook group together through messenger and then actually calling out to senior living facilities and different healthcare facilities around the county seeing who could actually accept the homemade masks,” said Oliver


Once she found facilities willing to accept the masks, Oliver and her friends began making them. She estimates that between the five people in the group, about 400-600 masks have been donated to places like Rosehaven Manor, Advanced Specialty Pharmacy, Woodhaven Senior Community, and Kith Haven Rehabilitation Center.


Of course, the fashion designer in Oliver has shone through in the fabrics she’s chosen to make the masks out of. “I definitely think I put a little bit of fashion design into the masks,” she said. “When I was choosing my prints … I didn’t want to go with just plain colors. I have camouflage, bandana style, I cut them in half and make it half and half.”


Other members of the group, like Lottie Ferguson, are using the need for face masks as a way to teach their children new skills while they’re away from school.


“Well, I heard they [face masks] were necessary and they were needed … I’ve got three little girls at home that are learning how to sew, and it’s a simple enough project so we can get together and crank out a high number of them.”


This is not the only instance of mother and daughter coming together within Oliver’s group. Darlene McClendon, a retired Flint school teacher, and her daughter Walida McClendon-Britton, an engineer, have begun making masks as well.


Though McClendon takes care of her daughter’s children while McClendon-Britton works, the two find time in their day to sew together mask after mask.


“We both sew, we both have sewing machines, my mom teaches sewing classes … We just immediately wanted to help … When I saw the Facebook post [asking for masks] I thought, ‘yeah, that's something we could easily help out with and make some.’”


Candace Jenelle, a nurse assistant working at Hurley Medical Center is one of the benefactors of the group’s efforts. While she is adamant about the minimal amount of safety the masks actually provide, Jenelle says just having something to cover her mouth throughout her hospital shift makes her conscious of how often she touches her face.


“For me it's a mind thing, I just feel a little bit better knowing when I’m walking in the hallway and people are talking and coughing that I’ve got some type of protection over my face … Since I wear my mask, I don’t touch my face as often, I’m not biting on my nails. You’re more cautious because you’ve got a mask on your face reminding you not to do it.“


The shortage of medical-grade masks, Jenelle notes, has driven hospitals like Hurley to encourage their repeated use. Normally these masks are considered single-use per the CDC’s recommendations.


“It’s funny how when you have an isolation patient, you take a yellow [isolation] mask and you wear it in that patient’s room, you talk to them for a second or anything like that and literally when you leave the room, you throw that mask away and you’re done with it.” Jenelle said. “Now in this situation, you have to hold on to it and use it the rest of the day or until you see that patient again.”


As a healthcare worker, Jenelle says it’s extremely important to stay clean and healthy, even more so is knowing exactly how to stay that way.


The CDC has put together a list of the steps necessary to avoid coming in contact with COVID-19. Instructions include washing one’s hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, using hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol content and avoiding touching your eyes, nose, and mouth. All the steps can be found on the CDC’s COVID-19 webpage.


As the local, state, and federal government continue to encourage social distancing, members of Oliver’s group like Ferguson cite the importance of finding ways to stay together and in touch with family and friends.


“Stay connected as much as possible with other people, I know it’s hard right now … I like to say physical distancing rather than social distancing. Socially we still need to be quite close to each other but we can be physically apart,” Ferguson said. ” Self-care is very important and in my case, self-care is sewing and teaching my children how to sew.”

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Read more articles by Santiago Ochoa.

Santiago Ochoa is a freelance reporter and communications student at UM-Flint. He is the project editor for On The Ground community reporting series and currently serves as The Michigan Times' Editor-in-Chief. Santiago has worked with publications and organizations like The New York Times, the Interamerican Press Association and Flint Beat. You can reach him @santi8a98 on Twitter and Instagram and email him at [email protected]