The coronavirus inspired many of us to wonder what, if anything, we could do to help when it seemed the needs around us were overwhelming. Two Capitol Visitor Center (CVC) employees found a way and are using their skills to make a difference as our communities fight the virus.

Making a Match

Christine Blackerby, the CVC's exhibits curator, and her family are known for seeing a community need and finding a way to fill it. In 2016, they founded the Hyattsville Zombie Run, a 5K race that raises funds for a local school. And every October since, they have hosted this community effort, organizing more than 100 volunteers and welcoming 700 participants to raise more than $20,000 each year.

When the coronavirus struck, many of Blackerby's neighbors in Hyattsville, Maryland, saw the need for at-risk people to wear fabric masks, and they began sewing. What wasn't clear though, was how to get the masks from those with the capacity to sew to those with the highest need.

A neighbor asked Blackerby, her husband Kevin and several others to help figure out a way to connect the sewers to the people who needed masks. The result was the formation of a new organization — Route 1 Mask Match.

The group collects handmade fabric masks from neighborhood sewers and distributes them to health care workers, essential workers such as grocery store employees, and the elderly.

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CVC employee putting together packages of sewn masks and sewing materials.
CVC employee Christine Blackerby putting together packages of sewn masks and sewing materials.

Blackerby's husband created the Route 1 Mask Match logo and the advertisements to recruit more sewers. The group then created a website, Route1MaskMatch.org, with forms for requesting masks, offering sewn masks and donating sewing materials. The group's Facebook and Instagram pages offer tips on mask making with materials at hand. Elastic for ear bands has been in short supply, so most masks are made with cloth ties.

One volunteer posted on the Facebook page how to make the cloth ties more quickly using a small plastic tool; then he 3D-printed dozens of them to give to other sewers. Blackerby's porch is the drop-off and pickup point for the masks. "We collect the masks and package them for recipients with instructions on how to wash and wear them. More volunteers then deliver the masks, or let folks who have placed requests know to pick them up from our porch. We have provided masks to several local eldercare facilities and to essential workers at several local businesses," Blackerby explained.

"I'm not very good at sewing myself, so I’m very glad to have this way to help others during this crisis."

Sharing Her Skills

As soon as Susan Sisk, CVC's director of e-commerce, finishes her telework each day, she commutes to her sewing room to begin her evening work — making cloth masks for her local hospital. "I began working with Holy Cross Hospital in Germantown after seeing a request for volunteers to make items for families with premature babies," Sisk said.

"The nursing staff asked for small items to give to new mothers with limited resources. They needed tiny gowns with space to cover medical equipment and take-home blankets that may be the only new item the mother has."

Nurses wearing masks sewn by a CVC employee.
CVC employee poses with face masks she made.
Local hospital staff with donated sewn masks; CVC employee Susan Sisk poses with face masks she made.

Recently the hospital staff reached out to Sisk for masks. "My nurse contact forwarded me a note a few weeks ago asking for masks. I had plenty of fabric scraps and was happy to help her. The project has been interesting, especially as the quarantine continued and more information came out. The nurses are very appreciative of the items and especially enjoy the fun and bright masks."

Sisk's mother "was amazing at sewing, knitting and crafts," and the two enjoy sharing their common interest. Sisk's recent contact with her mom, who lives in Ohio, has been limited to phone calls.

"Mom has been a great source for ideas, suggestions on techniques and motivation. I realize how much I appreciate the skills she taught my three brothers and me and the time she took with us growing up to share the things she loved to do. Working with the hospital has been great for both of us as we talk and share ideas."

"I am proud that I have been able to show Mom how the skills she gave me have been put to good use to help others."

Sisk continues to hone her mask pattern, responding to feedback from the nurses about fit and the need for a filter. "I recently found a pattern on YouTube with great reviews and a unique fit," Sisk said. "The pattern and instructions were all in Thai, and it was challenging to overcome the language barrier."

A family friend in the health industry wanted to learn to make masks for work and family. "We spent an evening social distancing at a big table, drafting a pattern from the site," Sisk continued. "Then working from our separate homes, we made samples, adjusted them for a better fit, and added recommendations from other websites about how to better secure the mask and limit the need to touch it. We had sewing class over our phones."

Sisk is now at work sewing up a new batch for the hospital and for friends and family. She also shared her new pattern with friends around the country, teaching sewing via text and FaceTime.

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