The Women Behind The Masks

Brittany Dowd and her 3-year-old daughter make masks to help protect others from the COVID-19 virus. Courtesy photo

The intrepid mask makers who outfitted Smith’s. From left, Kelly Vallejo, Lissie Ham, Teresa Boyd. Second Row: Roberta Idzorek, Thao Nguyen, Lauren Coupland. Third Row: Stefanie Pipis, Barbara Kaldi, James and Brittany Dowd. Courtesy photo

By BONNIE J. GORDON
Los Alamos Daily Post
bjgordon@ladailypost.com

Everyone said someone else was doing more. This tireless group of folks making masks for essential workers in Los Alamos, Espanola and other places, are rolling out masks by the dozens.

The Los Alamos Daily Post spoke to just a few of the many Los Alamos seamstresses putting their time shut in their homes to good use.

Brittany Dowd was frustrated. The molecular biologist is at home raising her two kids, ages 3 and 4, while her husband James does his post-doc work at Los Alamos National Laboratory. She longed to be in the lab working to understand coronavirus and help with its solution but that wasn’t possible. Then she went to Smith’s Marketplace. Yes, Smith’s.

“It occurred to me that everyone goes to the stores,” Dowd said. “It’s a public health concern for the workers because they see hundreds of people every day and they didn’t have masks to prevent the spread of the disease. I called the Los Alamos store manager and he gave me the go ahead and the number for the White Rock manager.”

Dowd’s next step was martialing her troops. She realized she couldn’t outfit the 225 employees by herself. She assembled a 10-person team. The job is now complete.

“When my husband did a drop off of masks at Smith’s Marketplace, they actually applauded him,” Dowd said. “They’ve been so grateful.”

On to the next task. They have now outfitted 72 percent of the White Rock Smith’s. What’s next?

“Los Alamos County has put out a call for masks for their employees who are out in the field,” Dowd said. “We’ve got our eye on that as our next project.”

In addition to Smith’s, members of the group also sewed masks for the workers at the Department of Health in Los Alamos. These masks have room for filters. More masks went to the wildfire helicopter crew stationed in town.

“The women in the group are incredible,” Dowd said. “They are all ages and some of them are still working!”

Dowd said Los Alamos welcomed she and James with open arms and they love it here and are hoping to stay on after James completes his post-doctoral position.

Incredibly, the last time Dowd sat down at a sewing machine before this crisis, she was 10 years old. When she asked for a sewing machine for Christmas, she had no idea how much it would be put to use, Dowd said.

“The most masks I’ve done in one day is 42,” she said. “And they’re good ones, too!”

Dowd is active on the Facebook group Los Alamos Mask Donations (https://www.facebook.com/groups/2670694739883898/). They can coordinate volunteer efforts and arrange to collect donations. Elastic is in particularly short supply, Dowd said.

Smith’s is not the only store to benefit from local mask making.

Metzger’s General Manager David Jolly spoke about the difficulty he has had in locating masks.

“We have not been able to get any masks anywhere, so we are very appreciative that someone thought of us and made us these masks,” Jolly said. “One of our suppliers did finally get a shipment of masks in and is sharing them with several Do It Best hardware stores, so we will provide them to our employees to wear if they choose to. We expect to receive those masks next week.”

Los Alamos Medical Center CEO John Whiteside was seen wearing a mask donated by a community member during the appreciation luncheon BR Brand Catering hosted for frontline medical staff and first responders Saturday in the hospital parking lot.

“We are so appreciative to all the volunteers sewing and donating masks for our employees,” Whiteside said. “Having the support of our community means so much to all of us. We are very grateful and we welcome volunteers to continue sewing and donating masks to us to help keep our employees and the visitors to our facility safe.”

It’s not only medical professionals on the Hill that are benefiting. Los Alamos High School graduate, Nora Lamartine is now a general practice doctor with an obstetrics specialty, working at El Centro Family Health in Espanola. When she saw the crisis looming, Nora called her mom, Winnie Lamartine of White Rock.

“Nora called and asked me if I could make masks for the staff at her clinic,” Winnie said. “Of course I said yes.”

Winnie, like Dowd, knew she couldn’t do it alone, so she too assembled a team. Winnie and her team are making masks with room for a filter, since their customers are medical professionals on the front lines of the fight against coronavirus. Then came another request, this time for gowns for the staff, then one for surgical caps.

Lately, the group also is making cloth headbands to protect the sore ears of those wearing masks at all time. Winnie’s headband design is spreading rapidly via the Internet and word-of-mouth.

“It was an inspiration and inspiration spreads,” she said.

Not all the masks Nora received are homemade. Elizabeth Hargraves was forced to cancel her trip to bring treatment and supplies to Haiti. She had a box of masks with nowhere to use it.

“Nora couldn’t believe I’d found a whole crate of masks,” Winnie said. “When everything is out of control, it’s nice to have something you can control.”

One of the seamstresses recruited by Winnie is local quilter extraordinaire Katy Korkos.

“I’m a quilter, so the first big hurdle for most people was already overcome for me – my sewing machine was all set up, I had plenty of thread and fabric, I know how to sew, and I even had some elastic and some beading wire on hand,” Korkos said. “I started making cloth face masks in early March because I was planning to travel to Japan, and I knew that masks are commonly worn in public there. The plan was to leave on March 30 to be in Kyoto in time for the cherry blossoms. I used a pattern I found by Googling ‘cloth face mask pattern’.

“On March 18 I began to understand how great the need is, and was, for cloth face masks for medical professionals. Winnie told me Nora’s clinic needed supplies that had been delayed and that the clinic needed 250 masks as soon as possible. A wonderful group of sewing women jumped in and came to the rescue. I was able to make five masks immediately, and then I became overwhelmed because I started to understand that hundreds of masks are needed every day in order to protect working people. So I stopped making masks for a couple of days, then started up again making them for friends.”

Korkos found an easier pattern that included a pocket for a filter. Masks have evolved as supplies run low. Bias tape replaced elastic. Pipe cleaners replaced wire, although pipe cleaners are not ideal because they fall apart in the wash.

“In northern New Mexico, the Facebook group, Rosie the Respirator has distributed hundreds of masks to EMTs, clinics and fire departments. They can use help and supplies!”

Rosie can be found at https://www.facebook.com/groups/655542891867837.

The beautiful masks of Terry Foxx. Courtesy photo

Korkos passed the word to local artist, naturalist and storyteller Terry Foxx. In addition to making masks for the clinic, she also has made them for her daughters, all medical professionals, and their families. She has material for 50 to 75 more masks, Foxx said. She recruited more mask makers. Foxx compared the current crisis to the Cerro Grande Fire.

“During the fire, we were out of touch with people, but we weren’t confined,” she said. “Now we can have plenty of social interaction on the phone and Internet, but we have to stay home.”

For anyone intersted in making masks, mask instructions are available at:

https://www.instructables.com/id/DIY-Cloth-Face-Mask/
https://www.deaconess.com/How-to-make-a-Face-Mask
https://www.facebook.com/groups/655542891867837
https://masksnow.org/

Editor’s Note: Carol A. Clark contributed to this story.

Who is that masked woman? It’s local mask maker Katy Korkos! Courtesy photo