When the coronavirus pandemic hit in March, a small army of Fort Atkinson-area mask-makers swung into action, sewing more than 20,000 facemasks to donate to health-care workers, emergency responders and to needy folks across the area.
Late last week, the mask-makers who had been working so diligently on the community’s behalf received a little gift of their own: a care package of hand lotion and other goodies.
The majority of the mask-makers coordinated their efforts through two Fort Atkinson-area businesses: Tailor Made Sewing Studio downtown and Two Pistols Trading Post east of the city along County Highway N.
Toni Whitley of Two Pistols said that she got involved in the project on March 18, when one of her friends asked if she could make a couple of masks out of donated fabric patterned with the Wisconsin Badger logo and Green Bay Packers decor.
“I made those and posted them online; then the requests started to come in,” Whitley said. “It just kind of steamrolled.”
At first, she worked by herself, creating masks for local health-care professionals who suddenly needed extra protection against the virus.
Then volunteers started to join her, and donations — mostly of fabric — started pouring in.
On the receiving end of the masks were folks from throughout the greater Jefferson County area, from Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin to St. Coletta of Wisconsin, the the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office to local police and fire departments and emergency services providers.
“Fort Transport was our first huge order. We made 250 masks for them,” Whitley recalled.
All of these masks for essential workers were made and distributed free of charge.
Meanwhile, the stable of volunteers expanded, especially while most people remained on “lockdown.”
“My own individual group of volunteers, the ‘Two Pistols Mask Sewers,’ ended up making a little more than 12,000 masks to be given out for free,” Whitley said.
Later, the School District of Fort Atkinson contracted with the shop to make an additional 7,000 masks for the nominal materials compensation of $2 per mask, to supply Fort Atkinson students and staff during the coming year.
Soon, Whitley had flown through a huge box of donated current and vintage fabric.
“I didn’t have a stitch left from that,” she said.
A couple of women in the Two Pistols group made their own substantial donations of fabric and elastic for the mask bands.
When businesses started to reopen, the group lost a lot of the members who were returning to work, but Whitley said she knew the project would continue.
“I said in April, ‘don’t go far — there’s going to be a second wave in August,’” she said. “By golly, I was right.”
As the start of the new school year approached, an entirely new group of recipients emerged. While the Fort Atkinson schools were providing masks for their students, some others who were facing in-person classes were expected to supply their own masks.
“I’ve had families come in crying,” Whitley said. “I had one family with five kids. They needed 20 masks and didn’t have enough money to cover the cost. We just gave them the masks.”
Whitley said she has also done private fittings for people who fall in between sizes — too big for the mass-produced “youth” masks and too small for traditional adult sizes — to tighten up the elastic so the masks fit as recommended.
The masks made by the group seem to be holding up well. Whitley said the mask she made for her husband at the start of the quarantine period still is working fine and in constant use.
After all of that work, Whitley is taking a well-earned break in Florida for the fall. She does not plan to return until spring, but her daughter and daughter-in-law are continuing the project in Fort Atkinson, operating out of “The Girls General Store.”
The leader of another group of volunteers, Maggie Mielke of Tailor Made, said that she got connected fairly early to the community effort making masks for employees at Fort Health Care, and expanded from there.
“I started making masks on my own, and I couldn’t keep them in stock. People would come in every day and clean me out,” Mielke recalled.
When everything started shutting down, Mielke said, a lot of people approached her about volunteering, and soon she had a group of around 55 volunteers working with her.
“We’d offer the fabric and pattern, and they’d bring it back the next day as a finished masks.”
Last week, Mary Beth Klietz delivered thank-you bags to all of those who had contributed to the community mask-making effort.
Klietz was among those who joined the effort right away in March.
“I’d been wanting to do something for our first responders,” Klietz said. “Our church group was talking about what we could do to help, and we came up with the idea of making masks.”
As well as involving members in the effort, the church council got behind the project with a significant donation.
“Our congregation is very blessed, and we had people looking for a way to contribute,” Klietz said.
The Fort Atkinson resident said she initially thought the volunteer project would remain within that small church group.
“Maybe if we’d been able to meet in person, it would have stayed within our group,” she said.
Instead, with everyone working from their individual homes, the project kind of took off, gaining momentum and additional volunteers.
Now that the need has slowed down a bit, with masks readily available in stores and online, Klietz said she felt it was time for those who have given so steadily of their resources and time toward the mask-making effort to be recognized in turn with a small gift of appreciation: bags of lotions, hand gel, and other fun, but useful, items.
Just as many individuals stepped up during the height of the mask-making project, sponsors stepped up to contribute toward the thank-you gift.
“We’re so blessed to have this kind of support from our community,” Klietz said.
Major donors to the project included Trinity Lutheran Church of Fort Atkinson and its STAR group, Humphrey Floral and Gift, PremierBank, JM Carpets, Blodgett Garden Center, Mary Beth Klietz/Mary Kay Cosmetics, Jan Kohls, Gerry and Sharon Armstrong, Lynn Sell, Pastor Amy Waelchli, Kay Falk, Julie Nordeen and Pearl Luebke.
To contribute toward further efforts, people may contact Klietz at N635 Wishing Well Lane, Fort Atkinson, WI, 53538, with donations marked “For Mask Makers” or call her at (262) 949-1635.