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See the latest news and updates about COVID-19 and its impact on the Charlotte region, the Carolinas and beyond.

Health Care Workers Need Protective Masks. These Volunteers Are Helping.

Courtesy Melinda Reljac
Melinda Reljac, left, with volunteer and registered nurse Kristen Lovino.

Crafters around the Charlotte area are getting involved in the fight against COVID-19 by fashioning homemade face masks and protective gear for local health care workers. The trend has picked up steam over the last week with multiple groups organizing over social media and in the real world.

One local organizer is Melinda Reljac. She's a stay-at-home mom, a veteran of the Air Force and a lifelong seamstress. She also has a friend who works for a hospital in New York, who told her about the hospital's shortage of face masks in a phone call earlier this month.

Her friend said staff members were only recieving one N95 mask per week, and were told to reuse it as much as they could. That made Reljac concerned. She offered to help by making homemade masks and mask covers, and she went online to get others involved.

"I created a Facebook page to share ideas on tutorials and tips we're learning as we sew these masks," she said, "and in just a week, we've got more than 200 people sewing."

Credit Melinda Reljac

Suddenly, Reljac found herself not only helping hundreds of local crafters and seamstresses get caught up on mask-making techniques, but also coordinating fabric donations from area companies, and staging drop-off events where people can safely donate their handiwork.

"We've collected now over 500 masks," she said, "and we're distributing them to our local nursing homes and to urgent care centers, to emergency rooms, and also with Atrium Health."

The Facebook group, called Face Masks for Healthcare Providers in North Carolina, is part of a growing number of groups around the Charlotte region and the nation helping fill the need for more personal protective equipment, much the same way volunteers a hundred years ago rallied to get extra blankets and cots for hospitals during the 1918 flu pandemic.

Instead of making blankets, quilting clubs are now making masks. So are volunteers with the local NAACP, and another local group, Charlotte Medi, has begun 3-D printing plastic face shields.

Demand for the homemade supplies has been high. Charlotte resident and freelancer marketer Garland West started a similar group earlier this month with her friend and client DeeDee Davis, who owns a fabric store in Fort Mill, South Carolina.

As of Saturday, the group, Carolina Mask Makers, had received requests for 350 face masks from six area organizations, including a pregnancy center, a cancer center, an in-home care center, and Novant Health Presbyterian.

Garland West

So far, the group has produced about 100 masks with the help of about 50 volunteers from around the area. West says the group is also looking at making scrub caps and shoe coverings. Some are even helping out with 3-D printing.

"One of my 3-D printers is a 14-year-old boy who is printing bias tape makers," she said, "so when we run out of elastic, we can more easily iron and create the bias tape that's needed to make the masks."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said health workers can wear homemade face masks as a "last resort," ideally with other protective equipment. Both Novant Health and Atrium Health have been eagerly accepting the homemade supplies, although not all hospital systems are doing the same. Duke Health, for instance, says it is not accepting handmade masks or gowns.

For some volunteers, crafting the masks has been a way to find focus during a particularly stressful time. For others, it's become a way to keep the family engaged. Melinda Reljac says a lot of parents have been involving their kids in the project.

"We're trying to find things for our kids to do anyway," she said, "so they're teaching them to sew. And really, it's not a difficult design. Anyone can learn to do it."

Her own three kids are helping her out. Her son cuts fabric and her two daughters work on stitching. She says it keeps them engaged and gives them a tangible way to help during the crisis.

"When they're saying they feel bad for people, and they want to help, this is a great way to get them involved," she said.

Their plan is keep working through the week, with another drop-off day scheduled for Friday, April 3rd.

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Nick de la Canal is an on air host and reporter covering breaking news, arts and culture, and general assignment stories. His work frequently appears on air and online. Periodically, he tweets: @nickdelacanal