Libby Wennstrom hands a face mask to parent Dawn Cotton on Monday at Blue Heron Middle School in Port Townsend. Cotton was picking up school supplies, as well as masks, for her five children who will be attending Port Townsend schools this year. (Nicholas Johnson/Peninsula Daily News)

Libby Wennstrom hands a face mask to parent Dawn Cotton on Monday at Blue Heron Middle School in Port Townsend. Cotton was picking up school supplies, as well as masks, for her five children who will be attending Port Townsend schools this year. (Nicholas Johnson/Peninsula Daily News)

Mask-makers outfit students headed back to school

Group steps up to produce child-sized face masks

EDITOR’S NOTE: This corrects the name of the Rotary Club that provided a grant for the face masks. The name was incorrect in a story published on Page A1 Tuesday in the Jefferson County edition.

PORT TOWNSEND — Tagging along with his seventh-grade sister to pick up school supplies, third-grader Carlos Soto kept his distance as he peered at a table covered in colorful face masks of various sizes and designs.

“Can I help you pick one out?” Libby Wennstrom asked from behind the table. “They’re free.”

Eventually, the young boy settled on a black mask covered in yellow Batman logos.

Carlos and his sister Ayelen Soto were among a steady stream of students and parents to encounter the face-mask giveaway Monday outside Blue Heron Middle School in Port Townsend.

They weren’t the first and they won’t be the last, said Wennstrom, one of three administrators of Face Mask Challenge Port Townsend, a Jefferson County-wide effort with about 100 members who have been sewing and distributing homemade cloth face masks since the coronavirus pandemic shut down schools in March.

Since May, the donation-funded group has pumped out some 2,000 mostly adult-sized masks a month and delivered them to grocery stores, primary care clinics, food banks and passersby at farmers markets and on downtown streets.

“Some of us who knew each other had started making masks using YouTube videos as a guide,” said Rosemarie Gagnon, another group administrator.

“We found out home health care workers and nursing homes didn’t have adequate supplies for their staff, so we started the group and started branching out.”

Ellen Cote cuts fabric for face masks at her home in Port Townsend. (Ellen Cote)

Ellen Cote cuts fabric for face masks at her home in Port Townsend. (Ellen Cote)

In early August, the county’s Department of Emergency Management — unsure if it would receive a shipment of child-sized masks in time for the start of the school year — asked whether the group could produce enough masks for all students in the county.

“We’d discussed it in July because we could see the problem coming,” Wennstrom said. “We were already working on building up stock, so it was an easy yes.”

As of Sunday, the group of home-based sewers scattered around the county had produced 1,100 of their 1,500 child-sized-mask goal, including four sizes in three styles and a wide variety of fabric designs.

Bekah Ross of Brinnon could see the coming need for back-to-school masks as early as June, so she designed her own fabric especially for Brinnon students, featuring images of pencils, books, elk and bobcat paw prints.

“Since I retired, I’ve been doing art and design, so that’s how I got interested in designing fabrics,” said Ross, who added she hadn’t done much sewing prior to the pandemic. “My sewing machine had been gathering dust for decades before all this happened.”

Last week, Ross delivered 85 of her handmade masks to the Brinnon School District for distribution to students and staff. Now she’s working on another batch with a new bobcat design.

“I’m hoping each kid will have two to three masks, ultimately,” Ross said.

That’s also the broader group’s goal.

“We’d ultimately like to make sure every school-age kid has at least two appropriately sized, washable and reusable masks to wear to school,” Wennstrom said.

Early on, a $1,500 grant from the Jefferson Community Foundation helped cover the cost of materials. More recently, a $2,000 grant from the Rotary Club of Port Townsend has helped cover the cost of making child-sized masks.

However, “a lot of our funding comes in from people in the community donating a little bit here and a little bit there,” Gagnon said.

And while the community mask-makers have shifted their focus to child sizes, the county’s Department of Emergency Management (DEM) has supplied the group’s usual recipients, as well as area high-schoolers, with commercially made masks from its on-hand stockpile of about 100,000.

“This community is incredibly lucky to have so many dedicated mask-makers,” said Dave Codier, DEM liaison officer for COVID-19. “The most amazing part is the consistency with which they’ve continued to serve our community. It has made an enormous difference.”

The group already has provided masks to Swan School and Sunfield Farm & Waldorf School. This week, they’ll drop off masks in Quilcene and Chimacum. And next week, they’ll set up a table outside Salish Coast Elementary in Port Townsend for three days.

The community mask-makers have no plans to slow down production. In fact, Gagnon said they are ready to continue well into next year and welcome anyone who would like to join them.

“I can’t make the virus go away, but I can make masks,” she said. “And that gives me a sense of purpose and fulfillment.”

________

Jefferson County reporter Nicholas Johnson can be reached by email at njohnson@peninsuladailynews.com.

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