In late March 2020, as the global pandemic began to impact Emporia and Lyon County, Newman Regional Health put out an urgent call for donations of masks and N95 mask covers. Donna Martin of Americus heeded the call, producing more than 2,000 masks over the course of a year.
“I knew they couldn’t buy as many as they needed for people coming into the hospital because of the shortages,” Martin said, remembering what prompted her to volunteer. “I’ve been sewing almost all my life, I’m retired now and I thought, why not help out?”
Martin purchased as many supplies as she could on her own but it was thanks to donations from others that she was able to continue sewing for almost a full year. Main Street and Newman Regional Health collected donations of fabric, elastic and thread from community members that were then distributed to volunteers. Martin was the most prolific of the volunteers, sewing 150-200 masks each week.
The masks were donated to the hospital where they were then sterilized and passed out to patients and staff.
“Folks like Donna who donated their time and expertise to make masks was critical in the early days to slow the spread,” Casey Woods, executive director of Emporia Main Street said. “Donna stuck with it throughout the pandemic. She spent a lot of her own money and time to make sure people who couldn’t get their hands on masks were able to have what they needed from a PPE standpoint.”
Martin began making masks in late March 2020 and continued through early March 2021, until she ran out of supplies.
“When I started, I had no idea how long I would be able to stick with it,” she said. “I decided as long as I was getting material, I’d keep making them.”
At first, it was a challenge to sew in bulk, but Martin is an experienced seamstress and soon developed a custom pattern and an assembly line strategy that streamlined the process.
“In the beginning, I just made the masks double-layered, then I was hearing that two layers weren’t enough so I created my own pattern that added a third layer from the top of the nose to the bottom of the mask,” she said. “It went pretty fast after I got a system down. I could set myself up with an assembly line and go step by step.”
A year and 2,000 masks later, it is difficult to measure the impact of Martin’s pandemic project.
“We’ll never know how many [coronavirus] cases were prevented because of Donna, but I’m positive there were a number of people that didn’t get sick because of her efforts,” Woods said.
Spending a year sewing masks was not something she ever could have predicted, but Martin is pleased that her skills came in handy during a time of crisis.
“I enjoyed it,” she said. “I like to stay busy and this was something I could do at home, safely, that also benefitted others.”
“Busy” is an understatement. Martin, 73, has received the COVID-19 vaccine but plans to stick close to home for a while yet, working on a long list of projects. She often assists her brother with maintenance at his home and at the apartments where she lives.
“We start mowing soon, one of my favorite things. And we need to get up on his roof and make some repairs,” she said.
Even after the past year, she is not tired of sewing. Martin recently finished a Roman shade — “not an easy pattern; I won’t be doing that again!” — with matching placemats. She is also embroidering several baby quilts that she plans to auction off with proceeds benefitting a local food bank.
While Martin is happy to have contributed to the community over the past year, she expressed dismay that some still reject or have decided to stop wearing masks despite health department recommendations.
“It’s so frustrating when I listen to the news and there are so many people still not wearing masks, or they’ve stopped wearing masks because they think we’re out of the woods,” she said. “But we’re not! We’re closer, but the pandemic isn’t over. People need to stick with the precautions. Please do what you’re supposed to do so we can be done with this. I don’t want to make masks for the rest of my life.”