Residents donate time, materials to help fill medical supply shortage

DOWAGIAC — Monday afternoon before a state “stay home” order by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer went into effect, Dowagiac resident Sara Melvin flipped through a short stack of fabric in different patterns — some of bright red watermelons, others featuring cartoon clouds or sheep. Despite the somewhat whimsical designs, each rectangular piece of cloth would soon be donated to a serious cause — to help slow the spread of the coronavirus.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, hospitals and doctors’ offices across the country are facing a dire shortage of medical equipment, including gloves, face shields and most notably — face masks. Now, area residents are stepping up to help fill the need.

Melvin, 39, is just one of many across southwest Michigan who is using scrap fabric to sew face masks to be donated to area hospitals. Though the masks are not sterile and cannot be used for surgical purposes, they can be used by some nurses to help them treat patients who may have come in contact with the COVID-19 virus.

As of Sunday, Melvin had completed 15 masks with the help of her 10-year-old daughter Katelin, who has been stuck at home following mandated school closures in the wake of the coronavirus.

“We are using leftover fabric from quilts [Katelin] had made, so that’s why some of them are more frilly and girly,” Melvin said. “We are just using material we had from the house.”

Though Melvin teaches preschool, she grew up watching her mother work in the hospital as a surgical nurse, which instilled her an appreciation for healthcare workers. So, when she saw some friends and one of her mother’s past coworkers post online about the need for masks, she knew she — and her sewing machine — needed to spring into action.

“I just want to help out, that’s just who I am,” she said. “I just like doing things to help others. I’m not a sit home and watch TV person. I’d rather be creative and do things for other people, especially since they are risking their lives being in the medical field.”

As she continues to sew masks to donate, Melvin hopes she can set an example to others of how they can help out during the global pandemic.

“I think everyone can be supportive,” she said. “If you can’t sew, but you want to help, you can donate materials.”

One other Dowagiac resident is doing just that. Vickie Phillipson, program director for the Greater Dowagiac Chamber of Commerce, put a call out on Facebook that she is willing to donate fabric to anyone who is making masks and other medical supplies during the COVID-19 crisis. She said she got the idea after seeing fellow southwest Michigan residents post on Facebook about making masks for donation.

“I have about five large storage tubs overflowing with fabric,” Phillipson said with a laugh. “If I can share that with someone that can use it, I’m happy to donate it. … It’s been concerning when you see that some of our local people are sharing that they don’t have necessary [medical] supplies.”

Phillipson said her donation of fabric is something small she felt she could do to help out her community during the viral outbreak. Like Melvin, she believes that the community working together will be how residents make it through the outbreak.

“This is something that we are all in together,” Phillipson said. “The more we can help each other, the better off we will be. If that means picking up groceries or running errands for friends who are concerned, I think that is something we all need to step forward to do.”

To contact Phillipson for a donation of fabric to make face masks to donate to area hospitals, call (269) 782-8212.