O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center Community Health Advisors lend skills to aid communities during crisis

O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center Community Health Advisors lend skills to aid communities during crisis
Linda Fluker, left, and Naomi King, right, showcase some of the many masks they have made and donated to their communities. (UAB)

Dens, kitchens and living rooms in communities across Alabama and Mississippi have turned into home bases for a cottage industry as health advocates dust off their sewing machines to help fight the spread of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19.

At least a half-dozen O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center Community Health Advisors and coordinators are using their sewing skills to make masks and ensure that their neighbors, relatives, friends and even strangers have access to proper face coverings.

For longtime community health advisor Mamie Curry of Birmingham, making masks is both an extension of her health advocacy and a demonstration of her faith.

“When you serve, you serve,” she said. “I was instructed by the Holy Spirit to make five masks a day, and I’ve been making them ever since.”

In the beginning, Curry, a former health care professional herself, was approached by an old co-worker who asked her for 12 masks. That order then doubled to 24, Curry says, and the requests keep coming. So far, she’s given away about 200 face coverings.

“Once I realized that I was really helping, it didn’t bother me,” she said. “I’m grateful that I’m able to help in the little way that I’m doing it.”

Curry says that, for her, sewing is relaxing and a pleasant distraction from the news of the pandemic.

In Bolivar County, Mississippi, Nicole Rodgers estimates that she’s made 500 masks since health officials advised individuals to begin wearing them in public. Sewing is a family affair for Rodgers, a county coordinator. Her mother also assists in the mask-making process.

In the early days of the pandemic, “We were all saying, ‘What can we do?’” Rodgers recalled. “Four of my siblings work in health care. It kicked off from there, and it’s still going.”

People quickly learned about Rodgers’ work through word of mouth and social media, and requests began to pour in.“It’s important because it’s about the health and welfare of the family and the community in which I live,” Rodgers said. “This is something that I need to be doing. If I can fall in and do my part, then I’m just glad to be doing it.”

Margaree Ruffin prepares her latest batch of handmade face masks. (UAB)

Nearly 230 miles away in Choctaw County, community health advisors Margaree Ruffin and Linda Fluker operate their own one-woman mask factories, designed to ensure the safety of their community.

“When this coronavirus started, nobody had masks,” Ruffin said. “Then I remembered that, 15 years ago, I bought a sewing machine to make curtains for my living room.”

Ruffin and Fluker don’t charge for the masks. Each says that this new industry is not about money but is, instead, a public service.

“I don’t know. Some things you just don’t charge for,” Ruffin said of the more than 200 masks she’s made and donated to those in her community so far. “I won’t charge for masks. As long as I have a piece of material, I’ll make them one.”

By giving away the masks, Ruffin says she is also able to educate her neighbors about the importance of wearing them. She recalls recently going into a dollar store where none of the employees were wearing masks. A few days later, Ruffin returned to the store with handmade face coverings for each of them.

“If I make the masks and give them to them, they’ll wear them,” Ruffin said. “They just need somebody to explain it. Some people just don’t understand.”

For these community health advisors and coordinators, the enterprise of making and donating masks developed naturally. They saw a need in their communities and took action to promote better health, said Claudia Hardy, program director of the Office of Community Outreach & Engagement at the O’Neal Cancer Center.

“These ladies are exceptional examples of how people can give of themselves and lend their talents for the betterment of their communities,” Hardy said. “The impact they are having by educating and equipping their neighbors for the current conditions is immeasurable. Each is an asset to both their local communities and to the Cancer Center as a whole.”

In a bit of irony, several mask makers, including Rodgers, Ruffin and Fluker, have experience in the textile industry but admit that they do not really enjoy sewing under normal circumstances. Now, however, they say they do it for the greater good.

“My cousin said, ‘You better get that machine out and start sewing because you know you can sew,’” Fluker said with a laugh. “I had fabric at home already, so I just went back, unpacked it and started making them. We just started out small, and it just escalated. I can’t count how many I’ve made.”

While it ranks among Alabama’s smallest counties, Choctaw County is a leader among volunteers making masks to protect its residents. Naomi King is another Choctaw County community health advisor who is busy making masks. King’s masks resemble the medical and commercial types, complete with pleats in the front.

Mask making is also second nature for Victoria Lacey. The community health advisor from Sumter County is a trained seamstress and quickly decided to lend her skills to the cause of public health.

“I felt like people who really can’t afford to buy some needed some, so I stepped in to help,” Lacey said. “It’s sad and hard to understand, but I guess that’s life for us. If I can help someone, I don’t mind helping.”

Each maker has added her own flair to the masks to make them practical and fashionable enough to encourage widespread use.

Fluker even designed a mask made of soft denim to appeal to men and others who might prefer a more casual look.

Lacey approaches each mask with the same skill and creativity as she would when designing a full dress or outfit. Her styles vary from modest colors and sports team themes to colorful patterns and monogramming, suitable for any occasion.

“Everybody is making them in different ways,” Lacey said.

Asked how long they will continue to stock material, search for elastic and spend hours at the sewing table, each volunteer gave a nearly identical answer: “As long as there is a need.”

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