Help the Helpers ‘seamsters’ quietly develop sustainable personal protective equipment for medical personnel in the wake of COVID-19.
Quietly working within her sewing room located in rural St. Martin, Missouri, Debbie Boeckman feeds heaps of sustainable nylon fabric through her machine. The fabric will be for nurses gowns and cheerful mask prints — think unicorns and Hello Kitty — a departure from her normal patterns this time of year. Typically, she and other sewers in her parish at St. Martin Catholic Church would be creating extraordinary quilts for the annual auction and picnic that takes place each July. However, this year, their group’s useful skill set was quietly commissioned for another worthy cause: masks and gowns for Help the Helpers, a grassroots effort dedicated to meeting the needs of frontline medical workers. Specifically, they’re making critical personal protective equipment, or PPE, for those who have been risking their lives to protect our own.
Meanwhile, not far across town, in what normally serves as Campus Coworking Space and CITY Magazine’s corporate office, located in the East End historic district, another quiet operation supporting this same effort is also taking place. The office’s back porch has served as a contactless supply point for Help the Helpers, where like-minded members, or “seamsters,” through the sharing of resources, have been picking up fabric and elastic to produce masks for hospitals and the greater community. The effort is purely volunteer-based and funded locally through individuals and businesses, with materials primarily delivered via a simple Amazon wish list to the Campus space.
“We’ve used Campus Coworking Space as a drop-off and pick-up location for materials, and for the last few weeks of quarantine, I was the only one working in the office,” says Missy Creed McFerron, fellow seamster, publisher of CITY Magazine, and co-owner of Campus Coworking Space. “I’d see seamsters walk around the building to go grab their elastic that someone else purchased from our Amazon wish list, and then they would come back a day later with masks in a Ziploc bag. It was such a quiet experience to see these ladies who I didn’t know serve in such a way with no recognition requested. It proved to me that there are still good people out there doing good work with no expectations or ulterior motives. It’s been refreshing to witness.”
Missy, who helped spearhead efforts alongside organizer and local philanthropist Rebecca Welsh (founder of HALO Worldwide), launched Help the Helpers over the course of a single weekend, which included a comprehensive website (helpthehelpers.us) and social media group page (facebook.com/helpthehelpers) for member recruitment
“The day Rebecca called to tell me her crazy idea, I’d just told my business partner how I wanted to figure out how to do something to serve,” McFerron says. “My best idea was to start teaching people how to sew online during the stay-at-home order. It was purely coincidental that Rebecca and I were on the same wavelength.”
“Nobody likes to feel helpless,’’ Welsh says, “and I think we all have felt that way at one point or another. We feel for the people who are in tough situations, and it makes our souls feel better to help, even if it is in a small way. There is something about knowing that your one act of kindness, combined with hundreds of others, can and will actually make things better for someone else. Plus, it is a lot of fun to meet new people who are like-minded and want to be part of a mission together. It’s so good for the heart.”
As Help the Helpers’ mission has spread socially and by local coverage in an early article in the News Tribune, regional calls for additional PPE for local organizations and medical establishments have grown. So have local partner sponsorships, talent, and ingenuity: Sewing kits have been organized to create medical-grade PPE that includes masks as well as an authentic prototype for reusable isolation gowns, designed in collaboration with approval from regional hospitals. That particular project required MU Health to obtain a professional pattern for gowns, and Rebecca and Missy had to source special ripstop and nylon fabrics (think tents and kites), sew prototypes for approval by hospital execs, and reach out to a local architect firm, Architects Alliance and American Document Solutions, to assist in the printing of the large-scale patterns. They also secured the help of the SSM St. Mary’s Hospital Foundation, which provided a $1,000 donation in order to initiate the creation of the first 100 kits for seamsters.
Before COVID-19, the staff at SSM Health St. Mary’s Hospital used disposable items without having to worry about a shortage of personal protective equipment. As health care workers responded to the increase of patients, the hospital quickly began experiencing a shortage in supplies. During the early stages in the pandemic, emergency staffers could go through roughly 100 gowns in a day. As a result, the hospital had to look for new options to protect their employees and their patients in a sustainable way.
“National news reports of care providers wearing trash bags to protect themselves were on social media and other outlets,” says Jacqueline Glover, infection preventionist at SSM Health St. Mary’s Hospital. “We decided to look at purchasing reusable gowns that we could rewash repeatedly, but found they were sold out. When we realized the national supply of gowns was low, we reached out to Help the Helpers to ask if their group, who have been sewing face masks, could begin sewing reusable gowns.
“Help the Helpers is making a huge difference in our supply,” she adds. “Wearing traditional isolation gowns for any period of time is extremely hot and uncomfortable. Staffers are very appreciative of the coolness of the lightweight, reusable gowns. I believe we will continue using reusable gowns, as it is a good step to prevent shortages and will decrease waste.”
In addition to making PPE, Help the Helpers began to seek donations for other critical supplies for Capital Region Medical Center, SSM Health St. Mary’s Hospital, and MU Health, such as exam gloves, sanitizing wipes, N95 masks, thermometers, and spare medical scrubs. United Way stepped up to serve as a primary location and coordinating partner.
Now, a month and a half since the organization’s launch and with 193 members, Help the Helpers has produced 1,793 reusable fabric masks and 200 reusable isolation gowns — and counting.
Seamsters (individually and collectively) have been enthusiastically answering the call every time, meeting objectives with methods that are as contactless as possible. The group even received approval from the mayor to designate the gathering of materials and delivery of masks as an essential activity for the community during Cole County’s shelter-in-place order.
“Each time we make a new ask to the private Facebook group, I wonder if we’ve exhausted people and if they’ll no longer be willing to help. But every time, we’ve had seamsters quickly message and raise their hands. The requests have been fulfilled, and often before the time the organization needed it,” McFerron praises.
“There’s nothing quite like being inspired by someone serving quietly,” Welsh says. “Debbie Boeckman, a Help the Helpers volunteer, is one of those people. When we called her with a special project for St. Mary’s, she immediately said yes and reached out to her sewing group from St. Martin Catholic Church. They’ve been incredible.”
“It was easy to contact women through the church — six of us have been sewing gowns,” says Boeckman. “Susie Lueckenotte has sewn a lot!”
Boeckman worked with McFerron to obtain the initial bulk of the material and cut sections to hand out to the other women — enough for one to two gowns. Boeckman then leaves the kits at the church, which has served as a drop location to get the materials and gowns back and forth.
“Personally, I have never sewn this type of material before, but I was surprised how easy it was to work with. It was a very easy pattern, and after a few rounds, we made an adjustment to the straps, and then it became a quicker product to make that the hospital was pleased with,” Boeckman says.
Reflecting on all they’ve accomplished together, McFerron says Help the Helpers has allowed her to use the skills she holds from her fashion design degree that rarely get exercised today, which has been extremely rewarding.
“I remember one evening when Rebecca and I were talking and she said something that stuck with me: ‘Hopefully, we have done too much,’” McFerron says. “At that time, and still to this day, we all don’t know how this is going to fully play out or what the best thing to do is. It was a guessing game at the beginning on what is the greatest need and when is it the right time to act, but I loved that thought, and I remind myself of it when a big project comes along.”
“My faith in humanity has only grown as I have watched Help the Helpers become what it is — a group of people doing hundreds of tiny acts of kindness to make one collective impact for our local heroes,” Welsh says.
Help the Helpers would like to say thank you to the following private citizens, local businesses, and health professionals who designed marketing materials, coordinated or moderated efforts, donated financially, transported supplies, and lent time and talent towards the successful production of PPE for Mid-Missourians to aid in the fight against COVID-19:
Adrienne Luther, Alliance and American Document Solutions, Capital Region Medical Center, Central Dairy, Hello Belle, Karen LePage, Marshall & Company, Sharon McFerron, Rebecca Rademan, United Way of Central Missouri, Vines on Broadway, SSM St. Mary’s Foundation, St. Martin Church Sewing Group, and the current 193 “seamsters” volunteers via Help the Helpers private Facebook group.
Note: For quilt-lovers, the St. Martin Annual Picnic and quilt auction and raffle will not be held this year, but there are plans for a Parish Event Takeout Meal scheduled for Sunday, July 12. For more details check out the St. Martin Parish Facebook page @stmartinparishjc.
Rebecca Rademan is a former editor and associate publisher of CITY Magazine. She is now the owner of Rademan Communications LLC, a small public relations firm and marketing agency protecting and promoting local companies, brands, campaigns, and special programs so clients and employees can build positive and professional images while getting involved in their communities.
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