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Nonprofit puts needles to work for healthcare workers

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BOZEMAN – In the midst of a newsfeed of what feels like increasingly bad news, a small army of exuberant seamstresses are lending a hand to front-line healthcare workers by sewing colorfully patterned face masks, the kind that will protect them and other essential employees during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bozeman-based nonprofit Montana Masks for Heroes is organizing volunteers to manufacture facemasks for local medical staff and first responders in Gallatin and Park counties. These masks will be available to the local medical community if and when current medical supplies are exhausted due to the nationwide shortage of PPE gear.

The group formed one night last month when Kari Aberly, whose husband is chief of surgery at Bozeman Health Deaconess Hospital, reached out to her friend JoAnne Nordhagen to help develop an idea to sew homemade masks for her husband’s team. Aberly was concerned that her husband and all Gallatin County medical providers and first responders could be left unprotected if there was a mask shortage.

Two weeks later, the Montana Masks for Heroes Facebook group has grown to nearly 2,000 followers, and its website receives daily mask requests from across the community. Nordhagen and Aberly estimate the group delivers 200 masks daily.

“There are many healthcare and frontline workers who do not have PPE,” Aberly said, “[including] hospice care, home health workers, EMS and police department, physical therapists and many independent clinics who are not affiliated with a large healthcare system.”

Bozeman Health Incident Command helped create a prototype for the mask design that ensures the protective face guards delivered to the hospital will be accepted. They are made from 15-inch by 7.5-inch squares of fabric, pleated, with a pocket for disposable filters and either ties along the back of the head and neck or elastic that fits around the ears.

“Montana has always had a spirit of helping,” said Nordhagen, a Montana native. “We’re a small community in a big state. People know their neighbors and want to take care of each other. It’s something left over from the days of homesteading and ranching.”

In addition to local seamstresses donating their time, businesses have stepped forward to help as well. Joann Fabric and Crafts as well as Walmart in Bozeman are donating pre-cut fabric; ACE Hardware has provided wire ties used for nose pieces; Brian Ortega at Silverman Law set up their nonprofit; and Carolyn Murray of Prospera Business Network launched the Masks for Heroes website.

Transporting the masks to recipients involves donation bins, which were gifted by Dry Hills Distillery, Northwest Pipe, Bozeman Montessori and Silverman Law as well as mask “runners,” Dayna Heidi and Deborah Shelley. Aberly and Nordhagen also praised moderators for their ever-growing Facebook page, Saundra Strasser, Kara Kasmer, Chris Marie, Amy Benjamin and Christy Hertenstein.

Individuals and workplaces in need of masks can complete a request form at the organization’s website. Once they receive a request, volunteers pick up donated masks, inspect them for quality and deliver them. 

While the state shelters in place to flatten the curve and provide much-needed time and resources to healthcare workers, Montana Masks for Heroes is giving southwest Montana communities a way to keep their hands busy and help those along the frontlines of COVID-19.

Prospective volunteers can learn about donating materials, sewing and prepping fabric, or running materials by joining the Facebook group Montana Masks for Heroes. The nonprofit is also accepting monetary donations, which are tax-deductible and go toward fuel for deliveries and materials.

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