OTTUMWA — Carol Ryon may be spending a lot of time at home since COVID-19 hit, but she’s been staying plenty busy.
Ryon is one of the forces behind the “Masks for Ottumwa — A Grace Group” on Facebook. Members of the group have been making cloth masks since late March and distributing them to several locations around town, including nursing homes, health care centers, the hospital, to first responders and Wapello County Emergency Management. Now, they’re working on getting masks made for the Ottumwa Community School District.
“We’re gearing up to help with the schools,” Ryon said. “Right now, my goal is all of the teachers, but we may adopt an elementary school or two. It depends on how many we make. I’d like to see masks on everybody in schools.”
She said members of the group have made about 2,000 masks so far. They’re aiming to make another 1,000 in time for school to start.
“There’s 700 teachers and staff, and if we do an elementary, we’re looking at least another 1,000 masks,” Ryon said.
The group started when several members of Ryon’s church, Grace Ottumwa, wanted to do something to help health care workers. She said she checked with a friend that’s a retired doctor to see if the masks would be used, if there was a need and how they would need to be put together. They took a few weeks to really think through the effort.
“We really thought it would help protect our community,” Ryon said.
Individuals from the group, which has about 10 or 15 members, have made masks and dropped them off at the church office.
“Then I’ll go pick them up and deliver them to whoever needs them,” Ryon said. “We didn’t want to charge for them, and we haven’t charged for them. If someone wanted a mask, we wanted to have one for them.
“It’s kind of away for our church to reach out into the community. It wasn’t us doing it.”
The community has stepped up to help the group out.
“We’ve had people donating fabric. The Sewing House has donated elastic. A lot of quilters have donated fabrics that we have stashed in drawers,” Ryon said.
That fabric, she said, is ideal because it is usually 100 percent cotton, which is what the group has been trying to use, and a yard of fabric can yield about 10 masks. Sheet metal workers have even donated metal for nose pieces that can be adjusted to make the masks fit better.
“At first, that was a real problem, getting the supplies. We’re able to get the supplies a little better now,” Ryon said.
Though fabric hasn’t been an issue, getting elastic had been tricky, and it took a lot of thought by the group on how to best fasten masks when elastic wasn’t available.
With the targeted school start date approaching in a month, Ryon and the group realized another organization was in need.
“We have a lot of teachers in our church, and we’re saying we want them to be safe and we want the kids to be safe,” she said.
So she reached out to some teachers and to superintendent Mike McGrory to see if the school district would be interested in receiving masks. While the district is still waiting on mandates from the state, she said he told her he would like for all the teachers to have masks.
That has led to the new focus for the group. Ryon is working on arranging a couple of work days for an assembly line at Grace’s new building, where there’s plenty of room to space out, but no date has been set yet as she gathers supplies.
“Some people work better on their own time, but by doing an assembly line maybe some people who don’t know how to sew can get involved by doing things such as ironing and cutting,” she said. “It’ll be interesting to see how that works.”
In the meantime, she’s been playing around with how to use her embroidery skills to add some personal touches onto the masks. She’s done several with the Grace logo and is working on a way to create masks with a Bulldog paw print.
“It’s been fun to make some personalized ones, but it’s mostly been let’s crank out as many as we can get and get people wearing masks,” Ryon said. “It was something I could do. I just felt called that it was a way for me to get involved in trying to slow down the spread [of COVID-19]. I was home, so why not do something?”