In the last 8 months, Tri-Cities Mask Makers made 30,000 masks for area hospitals, police departments, postal workers, firefighters, hospices, prisons, food banks and dozens of other groups.
According to the group’s founder, Cassandra “Cassie” Oakes of Richland, “We filled all of our orders and everywhere you look now there are masks for sale for a few dollars.”
Oakes, a stay-at-home mother of four boys, started the group in March when she read a Facebook post from a local doctor describing the need for face masks. Oakes said, “I could sew and the community needed masks, so I began making them and started the group.”
March seems like a century ago, but many of us can still remember when the coronavirus first started galloping through areas of Washington. Medical professionals appealed to people to save the diminishing supply of surgical masks and N95 respirators for health care workers on the front line. They recommended that everyone else make their own masks.
When requests for masks came pouring in, Oakes set up a system so the group could fill them in order. She also organized teams of people for every task.
Volunteers included sewers, runners who delivered supplies to sewers and picked up and delivered finished masks, and cutters who cut the pieces from fabric for the sewers to stitch together. The group even included elastic untanglers.
Oakes posted a picture on the group’s Facebook page of what looked like a bag full of spaghetti. She asked, “Do we have any takers on untangling this type of elastic & cutting it into 10-yd lengths for kits?” Within minutes two people volunteered.
Oakes could not estimate how many people volunteered with her group but eventually her Facebook page, Tri-Cities Face Mask Makers, had 1,500 members.
Becky Holstein Pospical of Richland made 1,000 masks. Pospical said, “I had nurse friends who asked me to please make masks. At about that time this group popped up.”
“People did whatever they could,” Pospical added. “My high school friend donated four bolts of fabric.”
“As someone who has sewed my whole life, I was happy to learn that there are others like me out there,” Pospical said.
Amy Hanson, also of Richland, decided that she was not a sewer. She recalls, “I made a few masks and decided – no way!”
Hanson became a runner because she said, “I know how to drive.”
Hanson recalls, “One lovely lady set up ice coffee for me when I came over to pick up or deliver. I met a lot of happy, nice people.”
DeAnna Winterrose, another Richland volunteer, made almost 2,500 masks but she said, “I don’t deserve all the credit for those.”
“I had volunteer cutters. Their work and other supplies would miraculously arrive at my door. I had a continuous supply. All I had to do was put the word out,” she said.
Winterrose described how she became worried watching the beginning of the pandemic while in Hawaii. “When I returned to Washington, making masks helped take my mind off of it,” she said.
Winterrose also credits a friend at Pacific Northwest National Laboratories who volunteered to check fabrics for their filtration ability. “That way we knew our masks were actually protecting people.”
Oakes coordinated all of these tasks while making masks herself and even doing training videos for eager volunteers. She said, “Everybody wanted to help in some way.”
Oakes said that her management skills came from years of motherhood after a career in banking. “I tend to be organized,” she said.
As the group shuts down Oakes admits, “I am exhausted.”
She added, “It feels refreshing to be able to bring people together to do something for the community. Knowing there are so many good humans out there makes my heart happy.”
Runner Jo Breneman of Richland praised Oakes, “The Tri-Cities Face Mask Makers was an incredible endeavor, and Cassie deserves all the kudos we can give her.”