NORRISTOWN, PA — It takes a village to protect a county, and few know that better than the volunteers at Masks 4 MontcoPA, a cohort of residents freely offering their time and supplies to make homemade face masks for residents in need.
The work of Masks 4 MontcoPA is coordinated by Tammy Tarloski, Community Information Content Manager for the Department of Health and Human Services in Montgomery County.
Tarloski said the idea for the group was born early in the coronavirus pandemic from discussions within county government of how people can obtain masks. She said she created the Masks 4 MontcoPA Facebook group, but its growth has been largely spurred organically and through collaboration.
Tarloski said she originally created spreadsheets directing “sewists” — a combination of sewing and artist — to requests from those in need of masks, but the approach proved unnecessary thanks to the commitment sewists have to quickly filling requests.
Today, the process is simple: A person in need of a mask simply makes a post in the group asking for help. From there, a sewist responds, learns the specifics of the request, coordinates delivery and produces the masks.
Tarloski said a team of about 90 sewists volunteer their time day to day and have, together, produced an estimated 27,000 masks for a variety of residents in need.
While masks are now required for residents across the state of Pennsylvania, the work of volunteer sewists began much earlier in the pandemic.
“Requests have changed over the time,” Tarloski said. “It started out with healthcare and hospital organizations. We were trying to get multiple sewists to fulfill an order of, say, 300. Then the request changed to families. Most recently, childcare center directors wanting to get masks for staff and/or children whose parents may not be able to provide them.”
One of those sewists is Colleen Gillies Peterson, who said she began sewing as a kid.
For her, however, it’s more than a hobby. Peterson has spent her life sewing and now co-owns a bridal shop called “Page Six… It’s Haute” in Skippack with her sister.
Peterson said she became involved with Masks 4 MontcoPA through her church, Christ Lutheran in Mainland, when her pastor called her and asked if she wanted to help out.
For Peterson, the decision to join the effort was easy. The motivation behind the decision was even simpler: “to protect the people who needed the most protection.”
But she said she’s far from the only passionate volunteer helping mask up Montco. The team includes sewists as young as children and as experienced as Peterson’s friend Ruth Seasholtz, a 97-year-old who lives in a retirement home in Telford. Peterson said she was finally able to visit Seasholtz after months of lockdown on Monday.
Masks 4 MontcoPA’s work was also made possible with the help of residents of Normandy Farms Estates, another retirement home in Blue Bell, who help cut fabric for masks, she said.
The residents at Normandy Farms were placed on lockdown and prohibited from seeing visitors for several months during the pandemic, limiting their access to outside supplies and personal protective equipment, much like in other long-term care facilities and retirement homes.
So, in need of PPE and presumably bored, the residents took to making their own masks.
“It gave them something to do,” Peterson said.
JOANN Fabrics and Crafts also helped support the effort, donating supplies to help keep Pennsylvania residents safe.
But the work of Masks 4 MontcoPA goes beyond the confines of the county, Peterson said.
“There are a lot of people who live in Montco but have families or relatives that live in different counties, states, countries,” she said. “The masks that are made through Masks 4 MontoPA are not strictly for [county residents].”
Tarloski said for her, the most amazing outcomes of the group is not only seeing residents staying safe, but also seeing the strong sense of community the volunteer sewists have developed.
“[The volunteer base] seems to be the whole community, male and female, varying ages. We have kids involved whose moms or grandmas have gotten them sewing,” she said. “It’s a labor of love for them. The community they’ve grown in this group alone has been amazing and inspirational, actually.”