‘Short-lived hobby’ turns into a Rotary Project to provide PPE to fight pandemic

Editor's note: This column is part of a series by Lakeshore residents about their experiences living through the COVID-19 pandemic.

More than two months ago, I made my first fabric protective face mask. If I had known then that making masks would take up my weekends and evenings, that I would be working with a national PPE organization, I would have never had the courage to start sewing. I remember telling my husband that this would be just another short-lived hobby project, I soon would move on to something else.  

That was 1,300 masks ago. 

God has a special way of leading me. It all started when I heard from a friend of mine, who is a nurse in New York, that they had run out of masks. I have owned a sewing machine for years and done a few simple projects here and there. So, I offered to make some fabric masks for my friend. With her encouragement, I made and sent more for other members of the staff. Next thing I knew, I was making masks and sending them all over the country to doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals. I soon learned that I really enjoyed doing it because it gave me a purpose to serve others during this time of crisis.

System and service

As requests piled in, the logistics of keeping track of orders, packaging, and shipping masks took as much time as actually sewing them. I knew I could no longer work alone on this project. I reached out to Charles Elwood with 3DC19.com for help. I admired the work of 3DC19 and the system they put in place using a network of 3D printers to make and distribute face shields and ear savers throughout the country. I envisioned that the same system would work with home-sewn face masks. Charles was easy to convince and got the system working in no time.

Sue Franz has sewn more than 1,300 masks.As a Rotarian, I knew this was the type of service project they would support. One of the Rotary International Club official mottoes is “Service Above Self.” Both the Holland Noon Club and After Hours Club came on board with both financial support to the cause and Rotarian volunteers to help with sewing and logistics. When a Rotarian volunteer coordinator had to step back due to health reasons, Liz Hoffswell stepped in. Her organizational (and sewing) skills brought the project to a new level of professionalism.

What started as one person’s hobby has turned into a teamwork of wonderful people. With the help of Liz Hoffswell, Charles Elwood (along with others from 3DC19), the 3DC19.com/sew-shop was up and running. The project is now rolling at lightning speed, with volunteers signing up, fabric and supplies coming in, masks sewn and distributed, and collaborations set up with other national organizations. It is truly a blessing to have this wonderful group of people to work with. 

Making an impact

Thanks to the volunteers at 3DC19 and Rotary Fabric Mask Maker Club; working together, we make a bigger impact than any of us could by working alone. I am grateful for the thousands of men and women across the country who are spending their time making PPE for those in need. I also wouldn’t be able to do this without a supportive family, especially my husband, Berthold Franz, who takes on almost all the household work so I could have time to sew. Whenever possible, he also helps me adding elastics on masks. We are all one big team.

Related: Volunteers launch 3D printer network to fill gap amid PPE shortage

When I am not working on my full-time job, I focus on making masks. It gives me peace and is my therapy — helping me to deal with this difficult time of crisis. For every mask I make, I pray the pandemic will end. As I told Berthold, I very much want this to be that short-term hobby.  

Until then, I will do my part, making protective masks for those who need them so they can safely go shopping, go back to work, take care of others, and stop the virus spreading.
The 3DC19 sew shop is still seeking volunteers to sew, as well as fabric and monetary donations. Go to 3DC19.com for more information, or make a tax-deductible donation on their GoFundMe page.

When not sewing, Sue Franz, Ph.D., is the vice president of chemical technologies for Gentex Corp.

This article is part of The Lakeshore, a new featured section of Rapid Growth focused on West Michigan's Lakeshore region. Over the coming months, Rapid Growth will be expanding to cover the complex challenges in this community by focusing on the organizations, projects, programs, and individuals working to improve conditions and solve problems for their region. As the coverage continues, look for The Lakeshore publication, coming in 2020.