Helping hands join the mask-making brigade

Diocese of Knoxville volunteers doing their part to combat the spread of coronavirus

By Dan McWilliams

Karen Vacaliuc of St. Mary Parish in Oak Ridge simply wanted to make face masks to help in the fight against the coronavirus, but her efforts landed her in a front-page article in The Wall Street Journal.

Betsy McKay’s April 6 article in the Journal highlighted Mrs. Vacaliuc and others around the country who are sewing masks.

“It was nice to have someone focus on something good with all the bad news going on,” Mrs. Vacaliuc said. “She was a friend of a friend and contacted me via a phone interview.”

The Oak Ridger is a costume designer by trade.

“I saw an Internet article about the need for masks and then another one about seamstresses who were starting to make them,” she said. “No one in particular inspired me—I just thought, ‘Hey I can do that!’ I have nieces who are in the nursing profession, and when I texted them about it, they said, ‘Yes, Aunt Karen, make them!’ And so I got to work sending them my first ones.”

Mrs. Vacaliuc has made more than 700 masks so far.

“I make an average of 70 a day,” she said, noting that St. Mary parishioners are “working to help.”

“I have three friends who are cutting all the fabric for me, and I’ve even got my teenage daughter, Marian, and husband, Bogdan, helping out,” Mrs. Vacaliuc said. “I have gotten elastic donations from the Oak Ridge Playhouse, which helped a lot as elastic is running out everywhere.”

She has used gingham, striped cloth, and jungle prints in her designs.

“I have used whatever cotton fabric I have on hand,” Mrs. Vacaliuc said. “This week’s masks are mostly solids and stripes. But, I have used fabric that I’ve had in my bins for years, thinking, ‘What will I ever use this for?’ And well, I guess there was a reason I had it all along!”

On any given day, Mrs. Vacaliuc has 30 to 40 bins of fabric at her house, “but now it’s down considerably as I’ve used a lot of my excess fabric. What’s left in my bins are sequin, lace, and upholstery fabrics that wouldn’t make suitable masks. At this point, people are also buying me fabric and dropping it off at my doorstep.”

The Journal article linked the mask-makers of today to World War II’s image of Rosie the Riveter, the icon of those doing their part to help a larger cause.

“You know, my husband keeps on saying that, and I guess there’s a sense of that, but I’m just doing what needs to be done,” Mrs. Vacaliuc said. “As St. Teresa of Calcutta said, ‘Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.’”

She has donated her masks to “lots of places”: “My nieces, who are in the nursing profession, friends from church, my vet clinic, and local nursing homes and health-care facilities.”

Father Brent Shelton, pastor of St. Mary, said the parish’s “Sewing Friends Group” numbers 27 people.

“We seem to be adding more sewers every week,” he said. “So far, the group has produced over 1,400 masks. That includes all the masks Karen Vacaliuc has made and sent to different people and facilities.”

St. Mary-made filter masks “are going out around the country,” Father Shelton said. “For example, a batch of 100 was sent to the Benedictine nuns in Ferdinand, Ind., on April 8. Many of the nuns are involved in health care. Members of this crisis sewing group have found that the group is a great way to stay connected with friends, old and new. The filters are donated by Southeast Building Solutions of Oak Ridge.”

St. Mary parishioners are making the masks even while maintaining social distancing, Father Shelton said.

“This virus has infected not only the bodies of its victims, but also the social life that’s so important for human beings to thrive,” he said. “Although our parishioners must stay away from each other during this trying time, an initiative like making filtered medical masks allows them to work together for a common purpose, even from a distance. I’m impressed by the initiative, the leadership, and the cooperation that I’m seeing among these parishioners of St. Mary’s, Oak Ridge.”

Letha Lehman and Meme Bush, a pair of registered nurses from Holy Ghost Parish in Knoxville, are also making masks.

Mrs. Lehman, vice president of the University of Tennessee Medical Center Alumni and Retired Nurses Society, has delivered more than 100 completed masks to UTMC.

“I just dropped off 46 more masks, bringing the total I have made and donated to 126 masks.

“I plan to continue to make masks, as the need is great at the present time. I am actively making masks every day since I started.”

Mrs. Bush has made more than a dozen masks to date. As did Mrs. Vacaliuc, Mrs. Lehman is receiving help in her mask-making efforts.

“I have had two community individuals donate to the cause,” she said. “One man donated two large pieces of 100 percent cotton, one in blue and one in tan. This was greatly appreciated. Another man gave me money to help purchase supplies as he said he wanted to help with the ‘cause.’ It was something he wanted to do to help the healthcare community.

“Some other members of the University of Tennessee Medical Center Alumni and Retired Nurses Society are also making these masks.”

Mrs. Lehman’s membership in the society led to her making masks.

“Our organizational members were contacted by Susan Wyatt, public relations manager at the University of Tennessee Medical Center,” Mrs. Lehman said. “Susan requested that our members make the masks and donate them to the University of Tennessee Medical Center. The masks we are making are for use by employees of the University of Tennessee Medical Center who are working at the hospital but have no patient contact. The masks we are making are not to be worn by personnel who have direct patient care with patients who have been diagnosed with the coronavirus.

“I was inspired to kick into action when I realized there was a need and knew it was something I could do. I wanted to help in any way I could.”

Mrs. Lehman said she is “making any color fabric that is handy.”

“I have used the 100-percent-cotton leader material I use for putting a quilt in a frame. I have quilt scraps that have just been hanging around in a stash waiting on a project. … I will use any figure imaginable … it makes it more interesting for the employees,” she added.

Mrs. Lehman fully retired as a registered nurse in 2012.

“After I retired from fulltime nursing, I took a position with Holy Ghost Catholic Church as a volunteer registered parish nurse. I did this for eight years. I am still interested in health care and doing anything I can do with the limitations that I do not carry an active license since I am retired,” she said, still offering her helping hands to her profession.

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