The Women Behind the Masks

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Through coordinating 2,358 volunteers, Help for Healthcare Workers Delaware has created and delivered more than 29,000 facemasks to essential workers.

 

In mid-March, it became apparent to Kristin Barnekov-Short that there might be a need for protective masks at the hospital where her daughter works as an ICU nurse.

“I honestly thought it would be a very small effort to make some masks for Beebe Hospital,” Barnekov-Short says. “I had no idea it would turn into such a large group and make the sizable impact that it has.”

Kristin Barnekov-Short and Kerry Kristine McElrone of Help for Healthcare Workers Delaware. Courtesy of Barnekov-Short.

To get things off the ground, Barnekov-Short turned to her friend, Kerry Kristine McElrone, and by March 20, the two had formed a Facebook group called “Help for Healthcare Workers Delaware.”

“Kerry and I worked together on a previous Facebook group effort so I knew we would be able to manage it well together,” Barnekov-Short says.

Back in 2017, Barnekov-Short and McElrone co-founded a local effort called “Operation Pussy Hat,” which McElrone describes as “a Facebook group that connected ‘hats with heads’ while raising money for Planned Parenthood of Delaware during the time of the 2017 Women’s March movements.”

By replacing hat-knitters with sewing enthusiasts, the two used the 2017 project as a blueprint for the mask effort.

“We wondered if we could harness similar energy for home sewists to make DIY face masks,” McElrone says. “The community response has been incredible.”

In just seven weeks, the group’s 2,358 members have created and delivered more than 29,000 masks to 150 healthcare and social-service facilities throughout the state.

McElrone believes the number of masks produced is likely closer to 30,000 because the group didn’t start tracking until its second week of operation.

Matthew Hathaway Morris, courtesy of Help for Healthcare Workers Delaware

“It’s a bit overwhelming to realize what we have been able to accomplish as a group in such a short time,” McElrone says. “It’s wonderful to meet so many Delawareans who are willing to work so hard to provide for our frontline workers.

“Women and men from all walks of life have joined to sew masks; cut fabric; donate materials and money for supplies; and distribute finished products.”

Like many of the other volunteers who compose Help for Healthcare Workers, both Barnekov-Short and McElrone additionally hold down paying jobs.

“It has been a bit of a challenge managing my day job with the mask group,” says Barnekov-Short. “There were a few weeks where I thought it would be unsustainable.”

McElrone, who works full-time from home as an Interlibrary Loan Specialist for Swarthmore College Library, compares the extra workload as a “second full-time job for both of us to manage.”

“Luckily at this point, most of our members know the drill and are fantastic at self-moderating each other and supporting everyone’s efforts, so we can focus on the overall mission,” McElrone adds. “The thank-you notes, photos, and videos we receive from facilities are amazing and help us know that we are helping.”

Shah Janelle, courtesy of Help for Healthcare Workers Delaware

That said, both McElrone and Barnkov-Short believe that as demands grows, so does the need for more volunteers.

“Some of our hardest workers are getting fatigued so it would be great for more people to join the cause and give them some relief,” McElrone says.

“Our nursing homes and assisted living facilities have been hit hard by this crisis,” she adds. “Many of their employees had inadequate PPE [personal protective equipment] to begin with, so in some cases we are literally their sole supplier for face masks of any sort.”

Interested in volunteering? Help for Healthcare Workers Delaware could use more help. Contact Kerry Kristine McElrone for more info at kristineker@yahoo.com

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