As the coronavirus shutdown began, Mary Keating remembers watching the news, seeing the rising number of COVID-19 cases, and feeling like she needed to do something to help. One thing amid all the uncertainty was clear: The world needed masks.

Keating called Peggy Ellis, who sews and quilts, and asked if she would like to work on a project making masks to donate to the community. Ellis agreed, and the nine-month-long project began. 

Since April, Keating and Ellis, joined by Mary Jane Clarke, Cochrane Garnett, and Hilda Chiles, have made more than 2,500 masks, which they donated locally and to communities across the United States. 

“We tried to send them to places where we knew the virus was particularly virulent, where there was a great need, and where people might not have the resources to buy their own masks,” Keating said. 

The group began by donating masks to the Louisa County Resource Council to give to people during meal distribution and to JAUNT to provide to bus drivers and passengers. They also donated masks to the Hospice of the Piedmont in Charlottesville, local day cares, the Open Door homeless shelter in Harrisonburg, and women’s shelters in Richmond. 

Then, Keating found a network of organizations online and their project wasn’t just local anymore. 

“As the weeks went on, it was clear there was just a great need for masks,” Keating said. “We then were shipping them all over the country.”  

The group sent masks to organizations in California, Louisiana, North Dakota, South Dakota, West Virginia, Illinois and Connecticut as well as the Navajo Nation, sending a bit of Louisa across the country. Each mask the group donated was reversible with a variety of color palettes and patterns. 

“People would often write a note thanking us for the beautiful masks because the handiwork was so exceptional and thoughtful,” Keating said. 

To pull off this project while maintaining social distance, the group had a system. 

Keating, Clarke and Garnett would prepare and cut the fabric and elastics. 

Ellis and Chiles would sew the masks. Ellis, who did the majority of the sewing, learned how to do so by hand from her grandmother decades ago, but she learned how to make masks from YouTube. She found that sewing masks was easy to learn, especially with Keating, Clarke and Garnett preparing the fabric and elastics beforehand. 

On average, Ellis would sew for six hours every day, completing about 40 masks.

Meanwhile, Keating researched organizations calling for donations and coordinated distribution. 

“With the quarantine, we dropped off on porches and picked up in mailboxes,” Keating said. “We didn’t engage with one another in each other’s homes.”

The group did this without ever being within six feet of each other to keep each other safe. Both Keating and Ellis say this project gave them a sense of purpose while quarantining. 

“My favorite part about this project was knowing there were people who really needed them [masks] and that you could do it for them,” Ellis said. “If you have the ability and the knowledge to do it, you should try to help others.”

For their last donation of 2020, the group dropped off 500 masks for children and adults to the Louisa Santa Council, with the hope that people stay healthy and safe during the holiday season.

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