The Rogersville-based group known as Project Serve our Soldiers has recently partnered with members of the Happy Hearts Quilt Guild to hand-make masks to distribute to local first responders as the area continues to battle COVID-19.

Project Serve our Soldiers normally focuses on members of the country’s deployed active military, adopting a different unit from one of the branches of the armed forces each year. They try to adopt units with personnel from East Tennessee and send them several boxes of goodies during the holiday season.

“Now, we’re stepping up and taking care of the soldiers who need our help right here at home,” said project coordinator Corki Weart of Project Serve Our Soldiers.

Each Wednesday and Friday at noon, the group sets up a tent in the parking lot of the Rogersville National Guard Armory for responders to pick up masks and for any donated material to be dropped off.

Weart told the Review that the group plans to continue this distribution schedule “at least for the next three weeks and probably longer.”

They hope to supply all members of the local police, sheriff’s department, Hawkins Co. EMS, Hawkins Co. Volunteer Fire Departments, all Hawkins Co. National Guard units and several local medical workers.

At this point, they are focusing their efforts on supplying “essential” personnel who are in direct contact with the public and are not distributing masks to individuals.

Rogersville Police Chief Doug Nelson is also helping the group to coordinate with local first responder groups. The group will also be supplying masks to Staff Sargent Dennis Fernando’s National Guard unit.

“We’re making these masks by the tons,” Weart said. “This way, we have a well-oiled machine working and functioning around the clock.”

The group began by making face masks out of cotton cloth and already distributed hundreds of them to local first responders, but they recently received a generous donation of medical-grade material from a local factory that produces medical supplies.

Medical-grade fabric makes a big difference

“These are not fabric, flimsy masks,” Weart said. “These are the real deal. The mask covers over the nose, over the mouth and down to the neck.”

They can function either as re-usable or disposable masks depending on the needs of the wearer.

“A local industry here that produces medical-grade material is allowing us to have the remnant rolls from their production to make masks,” said Chamber of Commerce Director Nancy Barker, who coordinated with the local business to secure the donation. “We’re very grateful that they allowed us to have that.”

Making the masks

“The (medical grade) fabric comes in a big roll, and we cut it in 10-inch squares,” said Tillie Richardson of the Happy Hearts Quilt Guild. “Then we add four pleats in it and add the elastic on each end of it. The elastic has been a problem to get, and we’re getting it any place we can find it. We’re using different types of it and just trying to locate anything that could work.”

They had been purchasing the elastic at local craft stores, but it soon became a scarcity.

“A lot of people are making masks right now, so there is a shortage of elastic,” Richardson said.

They actually received several generous donations of elastic during their Wednesday mask distribution. One donor in particular, who wished only to identify herself as “Elaine” heard about the group’s efforts, searched her own sewing room for some elastic and dropped it off on Wednesday.

There are around 10 people who are actually sewing the masks, but they also have people designated just to cut the fabric or package the finished masks. Richardson estimated they have around 15 total people working on the project.

With their assembly line in place, Richardson explained that it takes only five minutes to make one mask.

Weart had previously recruited some members of Cherokee and Volunteer’s NJROTC programs to help with the project, though they stopped meeting together after Hawkins Mayor Jim Lee issued a “safer at home” directive.

Lena Hewitt, who is a member of the quilt guild, also has recruited student Kendra Bingham of CHS to help make masks.

They are also adhering to the social distancing guidelines while making the masks, as they all sew in their individual homes. When one member is picking up or dropping off supplies from another, they leave items on their porches and don’t enter each other’s homes.

A need for elastic

The group desperately needs donations from the community to continue making these masks.

They use ¼ inch elastic for the ear pieces on the masks, but they explained that they can also use wider elastic, as it can be cut to the correct width.

To donate, you can drop it off at the Armory at the aforementioned donation times or mail it to Project Serve Our Soldiers, 183 Manis Road, Rogersville, TN 37857.

They would also greatly appreciate any monetary donations from the community, which they noted will be put strictly towards the mask project.

Barker also noted that the group recently received a donation from Louise Hawks, who formerly owned the Rogersville Medical Center.

“We want to be sure and thank her for her generous support,” Barker said. “It has helped us buy elastic, thread and some of the running that has had to be done to get all these made.”

Distributing throughout the community

The group had approximately 1,000 masks completed and ready for distribution on Wednesday when they focused on distributing them to members of all Hawkins County volunteer fire departments, rescue squads and the Hawkins County EMS.

They estimated the total number of masks they have made since this project began is closer to 1,500 or 2,000.

Bill Hewitt, who is serving as the go-between for the mask makers and the emergency responders, said he has left messages with every VFD in the county, but had only heard back from five of them.

Hewitt asked that a representative from each VFD, rescue squad and EMS contact him, if they haven’t already, at (321) 693-1548 to confirm the number of masks that they need so their packages can be prepared.

“We’ve already given these masks to all of our officers and our (Rogersville) fire department too,” Chief Nelson told the Review. “If they have to go in a house or on a call, we want them to have these.”

He noted that, before the group began making and distributing masks, his officers had “very few” masks.

“We’ve got gloves and still have them, and we had a few N95 masks,” he said. “We have had those (N95’s) for a while now, but we’re using these (handmade masks) now.”

A representative from the Hawkins Co. Sheriff’s Department also picked up enough masks last week to distribute throughout the department.

“They’ll probably need a few more, but we’ve gotten them what we can for right now,” Nelson said.

As far as any first responders who have not yet received masks, Nelson said on Wednesday, “I think there’s two or three fire departments that don’t have enough, but we’re going to try to get them some today.”

“It’s going to help protect all of our guys”

Church Hill Fire Chief Luke Wood picked up 100 masks on Wednesday to be distributed among his 27 firefighters.

“This is a pretty big donation to us and our fire department,” Wood said. “We appreciate this organization doing that for us. It’s going to help protect all of our guys in our fire department in the event that we do come across somebody who has an exposure to this. We’ve got 27 firefighters, and that includes the police department, so it’s going to help equip both the fire department and the police department.”

Before he picked up the handmade masks, Wood said, “all we had were about five boxes of our own use masks for when we do our fit testing.”

Lauren Dykes of the Rogersville CVS Pharmacy also came by to pick up a batch of masks for the store’s employees.

“We do get so many masks, but we use them up pretty fast,” she said.

When asked if CVS had enough masks and supplies had this group not made extras, Dykes said, “It (the mask donation) is very helpful.”

“We’re going to take care of Hawkins County first”

“I cannot say enough good things about these ladies and the way they have undertaken this project,” Barker added. “They’ve taken the talents God gave them and used them for the betterment of the community.”

As far as expanding their efforts into other areas, Weart said, “We’re going to take care of Hawkins County first, and then we will help other counties. But, we have to help our county first. You start at home and work your way out.”

Anyone interested in contributing to surgical mask production in Hawkins County can call Weart for more information at (407) 883-2036. Hewitt also asked that a representative from each VFD, rescue squad and EMS contact him, if they haven’t already, at (321) 693-1548. He can also be reached at dogwood.wth@gmail.com.

Anyone interested in contributing funds or materials can mail them to: Project Serve Our Soldiers, 183 Manis Road, Rogersville, TN 37857.

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