Athens Community Collaborates to Make Protective Masks

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ATHENS, Ohio (WOUB) — Athens businesses and citizens are combining their resources and talents to supply protective masks for the community during the COVID-19 pandemic.  

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have recommended that all Americans wear masks when they are out in public. Healthcare workers and people at higher risk for contracting COVID-19 need medical-grade masks, but these can be difficult to find.  

Athenians have formed networks to provide materials, sew masks, and distribute them to neighbors in need. Passion Works Studio and Zonez printing company are two of the local businesses driving one of these working groups.

Collecting materials and finding new methods 

Dave Kasler, owner of Zonez, is partnering with Passion Works to accept donations and coordinate volunteer efforts. 

“We also volunteered to cut all the shirts down to manageable sizes for the volunteer sewers,” Kasler said.  

Dave Kasler, left, and Dr. Tim LaVelle, right. Kasler is cutting a t-shirt for use in making protective cloth masks.
Dave Kasler, left, and Dr. Tim LaVelle, right. Kasler is cutting a t-shirt for use in making protective cloth masks. (Photo credit: Dave Kasler)

Dr. Tim LaVelle, a dentist at Athens Dental Arts, said his staff donated PPE to local healthcare facilities, but he wanted to do more. He purchased 500 t-shirts from Zonez for use as masks. 

“(LaVelle) knew we had a supply of pre-printed t-shirts on a discount rack and asked if we could sell those to him at an even lower cost,” Kasler explained.  

LaVelle did some research and discovered that other mask makers in the United States are using a medical fabric typically used to wrap around sterile instruments. 

“These (cotton masks) are great as first line protection, but not hospital grade,” he said. “Doctors and nurses need medical grade masks ASAP.” 

With his office closed and the staff at home, LaVelle placed an order for the material himself. He said he ordered quite a bit more than he originally thought: 20 cases of the fabric, with 2,500 sheets in each case.  

“Never underestimate the things a great staff does day in, day out,” he said, adding that one sheet can be used as an insert in nine masks.  

The Zonez team is also cutting this material to insert into the masks so local volunteers can put their needles to work. 

Putting the pieces together 

 The network of sewers coordinated through Passion Works Studio, includes a number of citizens and local businesses. 

“We saw a need that was coming,” said Patty Mitchell, executive director of Passion Works. “It was apparent that masks may be an important part of what we need in our community to make us a little bit safer.” 

A piece of fabric that will be sewn into a protective mask by one of Athens County's many mask makers.
A piece of fabric that will be sewn into a protective mask by one of Athens County’s many mask makers. (Photo credit: Passion Works)

Mitchell said the evolution of this project has been “fast and furious.” Hocking Valley Community Bank approached her to request masks for residents and healthcare providers at nursing homes. The bank matched donations from employees and directors and contributed $3,700 to the cause.  

“The intensity has been so energetic,” she said, adding that members of the community have been generous with their time and talents, doing whatever they can to help one another 

Members of the community have donated fabric, elastic ties, and their sewing skills to move the project forward. With so much material on hand, the committed workers are staying busy. “People are reinventing themselves by really digging in with what they know and expanding it,” Mitchell said.  

Employees at Ambassador Laundry on Stimson Avenue are also helping stitch. Ohio University’s CoLab has been hosting online workshops to teach people how to make their own masks at home, and helped with purchasing supplies, cutting material, and distributing items to local mask makers.  

Keeping the community healthy 

The medical masks are being delivered to the Athens City-County Health Department, the Athens County Board of Developmental Disabilities, and local nursing homes

Masks are also going to Ohio University and patients at community clinics through the Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine (HCOM). The community clinics provide care to 26 counties in southeast Ohio. 

Sterile material, ready to be inserted into cloth masks.
Sterile material, ready to be inserted into cloth masks. (Photo credit: Passion Works)

Dr. Ken Johnson, executive dean of HCOM and chief medical affairs officer for Ohio University, explained that even if people do not show symptoms of COVID-19, they could be a carrier and risk infecting other people, particularly if they cough or sneeze. 

“One of the best things people can do to give is to not give,” he said, adding that wearing masks and remaining 6 feet away from other people is very important.  

Johnson said people may have a “corona cloud” or “corona fog” of water droplets around them that might make others sick.  

He compared this to the Peanuts character Pigpen, who is often seen with a cloud of dirt and dust around him.  

“If you have a mask, you are getting rid of that ‘corona cloud’ around you,” he said. 

Johnson added that the collective efforts in Athens County make him proud.  

“People have a really strong community spirit and a sense of not only self reliance but also wanting to help each other,” he said. “It makes me smile and warms my heart every day.”  

HCOM’s Sherri Oliver, executive director of community health programs and the area health education center, said the community’s efforts represent the heart of Athens.  

“It’s really the nature of our rural community to be so interconnected,” she said. “The mask project is just one example of a need rising up in our community, and people coming from all sectors and skills levels to help in a collective manner.” 

How to help

To find out more about the Athens mask making project or to inquire about getting masks for personal use, visit Passion Works or Zonez on Facebook. 

Passion Works has set up a GoFundMe to offset the cost of labor and materials. Monetary donations can also be made online, or by mailing a check to: Passion Works Studio, 136 N. Congress St., Athens, Ohio, 45701. Include in the memo that it is for masks. 

Donations of cotton fabric or elastic hair ties can be dropped off on the porch of 136 N. Congress St., Athens, Ohio.