Says Joe Maddon: “The volunteers are the unsung heroes. Without them, none of our efforts occur.” Every month, the Respect 90 Foundation will salute a distinguished volunteer from the communities of Tampa, FL, Chicago, IL, Mesa, AZ, Southern California, or Joe’s Hometown of Hazleton, PA. Respect 90 will present a $1,000 grant to that volunteer’s charity. Should you have someone who is deserving, please let us know.
Penny Foote | The Mask Project Tampa Bay
The volunteers from the Mask Project Tampa Bay have made close to 50,000 face masks for those on the frontline of the COVID-19 pandemic. Its founder has a confession to make. “I can’t sew a button,” says Penny Foote with a chuckle. She has had no trouble, however, finding people who can.
The long-time resident of Land O’ Lakes, Florida, a Tampa suburb, organized and oversees an effort that provides personal protective equipment to hospitals, senior centers, schools, doctor’s offices, nursing homes, firefighters, EMT’s, paramedics and those individuals who are immune-compromised over a six-county area. All for free.
Her network of volunteers create not only masks, but ear savers, head bands, surgical caps and more recently a lanyard that keeps the mask within easy reach. They also make custom “communicator masks” of clear vinyl to aid the hearing impaired. All funded solely by donations.
“I’m totally amazed at what’s happened. It’s incredible to see the amount of volunteers,” says Penny who estimates that group numbers in the thousands. “If we have a need all we have to do is make a FaceBook post and we get immediate responses from volunteers like ‘I have those’ or ‘I can make those.’ They bend over backwards to help us meet all of our needs.”
It all began when she saw a news report that the CDC was recommending hospital personnel in the COVID-19 wards wear bandannas and scarves.
“So I am looking at the seriousness of COVID and I am thinking that is not safe at all,” reasons Penny, a mother of four who has managed day care out of her house for the past 19 years.
“It’s not fair to doctors and nurses who are expected to go in there with a bandanna on their face knowing what they are up against. I was thinking about some of my friends who are nurses. I figured we could do something as a community to try and help provide something better.”
The first thing she did was call her sister. “Now I can’t sew, but she’s a seamstress and makes children’s clothes. She can make anything,” marvels Penny. Masks would not be a problem, said her sister.
The next call was to a friend, Danielle Sullivan. “She’s good with organizing the spreadsheets,” Penny adds. “I’m not good at spreadsheets either.”
Then it was on to Facebook and the project took off. “Every day it grows bigger and bigger. We get more volunteers and get more requests for masks.
At first, everything was run out of Penny’s house, but as requests flooded in points of contact were established at volunteers homes throughout the region. Between those who sew from their home and those who serve as “runners,” it all gets done. “It’s been a case of everybody doing what they’re good at,” says Penny. “It has to be that way to be able to make something like this work well.”
Last month the requests started coming in from schools.
So many, in fact, that Penny has had to limit each school to 100 masks. “We can’t do them for everybody,” Penny cautions, “but we do as much as we can. The supplies are very expensive. We can only do what our funds allow.”
Nonetheless the group’s impact has been felt by many.
Jennifer Lumm, an elementary school special education teacher, had a specific need.
“My students in particular being non-verbal, have communication disorders that go along with autism,” Lumm explained to Bay News 9 in Tampa. “When you’re teaching reading to students and you’re telling them to make the “B” sound. How are they going to see you make the “B” sound if they can’t see your lips? So that’s why the masks with the clear part are great, because at least they can see your instruction.”
Those specialty facemasks, however, are not cheap and while many teachers routinely purchase supplies for their students, the masks were a stretch. Lumm heard of the work the Mask Project Tampa Bay was doing for healthcare workers and schools and he turned to them for help. It’s something the group was happy to do.
“It’s a great feeling to know we’re helping. That’s why we’re here. That’s why we have as many volunteers as we do,” Penny says.
It also takes people who care. It’s not Penny’s first community project. In 2017, when a massive sinkhole opened up near her Tampa suburb home, Penny organized support for the families involved.
“When you see someone in need Iike that, I think what would I do if that happened to me? You just want to help,” she says.
Rick Vaughn | Executive Director, Respect 90 Foundation
For more information on Mask Project Tampa Bay go to the organization’s Facebook page.