Local seamstress trains dozens to sew face masks for medical professionals responding to coronavirus

Faculty, staff, and students from the Grand Valley State University School of Engineering and applied Medical Device Institute teamed up to design and sew approximately 1,000 facial masks made of fabric and metal to help curtail the shortage of supplies for local medical professionals responding to the coronavirus outbreak. According to the Padnos College of Engineering and Computing, the Medical Mask Project was a success in part due to the leadership of local seamstress and artisan Alison vanMelle – who trained dozens of its volunteers to sew.

“I love teaching others,” says vanMelle, who became involved with the project after her brother-in-law, a lab technician in GVSU’s Kennedy Hall of Engineering, told her about the initiative and asked if she wanted to help. “During our first meeting, there were a few raised brows when I said I could teach anyone to sew the masks,” she says. “But I did indeed teach people who had never touched a sewing machine.”

A Survey of the Nation's Mayors submitted to Congress in March revealed that most cities did not have the adequate supplies needed to protect their residents. As the severity of the need for emergency equipment became apparent, a public call to action went out across the nation and locally in Michigan for individuals who can sew, to help create facial masks to lessen the shortage.

vanMelle is a local artisan who makes and sells handmade baby gifts and accessories. “Never in a million years did I think my knowledge of sewing would be crucial during a pandemic,” she says, “But here I am.” According to GVSU, all hands were on deck to complete approximately 1,000 masks. The Medical Mask Project team is made up not only of GVSU faculty, staff, and students, but also their family members who stepped up to assist. When asked how she led the group of volunteers through sewing, training, and production of the facial masks, vanMelle says she relied on her prior experience as a production manager – and positivity. “Whether you are experienced or learning for the first time, the attitude of ‘you can do it,’ is how I encourage anyone to get things done.”

Positivity goes a long way during periods of uncertainty and as vanMelle reminds, “We all have something to give.” As such locally, more artisans, seamstresses, and those willing to learn have answered the call to use their talent and resources to help protect medical professionals on the front lines of the coronavirus outbreak.

The handmade masks created were donated to an urgent care facility in Grand Rapids and is just one example of how GVSU is helping to improve the strain on resources for Michigan medical professionals. Its College of Liberal Arts and Sciences sent 90,000 disposable gloves to Spectrum Health and its occupational safety and health management department donated its current stock of laboratory supplies that included 50 N-95 equivalent respirators.

“It seemed like the right thing to do," says Michelle Dewitt, lead lab supervisor with the Chemistry Department. Dewitt led the effort to donate disposable gloves to Spectrum. The laboratory supervising team orders a year's supply at a time and without the students on campus, thought the gloves could best be used in a medical setting during the pandemic. "We don't want doctors, nurses, and other health professionals to get sick,” Dewitt says, “We want them to be able to help us.”

The Medical Mask Project is ongoing and needs volunteers and supplies. Visit the Padnos College of Engineering and Computing’s website to learn more about the efforts underway and how to get involved.

Photos courtesy Grand Valley State University School of Engineering.

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