Jami Sales of Paauilo mauka and her cousin, Marlene Simpson, began their effort to sew face masks in March as the intensity of the COVID-19 pandemic ramped up.
The idea, she said, came from the national news, when they realized there could be a shortage of personal protective equipment for medical personnel.
In nearly three months, Sales, along with a hui of volunteers, sewed and distributed more than 17,000 masks in East Hawaii and beyond.
Their first goal was 500 masks for Hamakua Health Center. Then masks went to Hale Ho‘ola Hamakua, North Hawaii Community Hospital and Hilo Medical Center.
More masks were provided to police, other medical workers and health care providers, pharmacists, grocers and gas station employees, “everyone who was still taking a risk to serve us,” Sales said.
Once those were done, Sales said volunteers voted to see if they wanted to continue to make masks for the general public.
Everyone said yes.
All told, about 70 people, with a core group of about 45, “just really powered them out,” Sales said.
“We got to the point we were producing, at our height, maybe a couple thousand a week,” she said.
An assembly line of sorts aided their efforts. Sales said fabric was provided for people to cut out. Fabric and ties were assembled into kits of 50 and given to sewers by teams of runners, people willing to drive up and down the coast to pick up and deliver supplies.
The requests kept coming, and Sales said “giveaway boxes” were established at post offices between Honokaa and Honomu, as well as in Hawi and Waikoloa.
“The boxes turned out to be the best way to distribute (masks),” she said.
Everything was free, but some people donated money to buy more fabric.
With so much uncertainly about the pandemic, Sales said sewing gave the volunteers something constructive to do with their days.
The hui wrapped up its efforts the first week of this month.
“It warmed my heart incredibly about the inherent goodness of everyone here in our community,” Sales said. “People did whatever they could to help and with such willingness and love in their heart, so I think I got more out of it than anybody. It was wonderful. (I have) met fabulous people, people I think will stay in my life the rest of my life.”
The amount of masks the group created surprised even Sales.
“I thought we were going to work really hard and do 500,” she said, laughing. “… But it just kept happening.”
She said people who sew willingly gave up their beloved “fabric stashes.” Others donated sheets, tablecloths and other fabrics for mask linings.
With donations from the United Way and Lions Club in Honokaa, Sales said they could purchase more fabric, and state Reps. Chris Todd and Mark Nakashima both provided assistance.
Volunteer Nancy Bradwell of Ninole had never met Sales before the mask-making endeavor, but received a general email in March asking for sewers and cutters.
“I’m a quilter, and I love to sew, so I responded to that,” she said.
Bradwell, a substitute teacher who helped cut fabric, estimates she sewed close to 700 masks herself.
“… I thought it was a good, productive way to use my time here,” she said.
The work has been exciting and rewarding, said Bradwell, who stocked the masks at the Ninole post office.
She tried to keep 20 masks there every day and said on most days, she has to replace 15-20.
“(It’s) just really rewarding to be able to participate in this and help the community … .”
Email Stephanie Salmons at firstname.lastname@example.org.