Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, April 3, 2020

Making masks, getting them where needed

Kelley Elliott is the founder of Tennessee Volunteer Seamstresses, a grassroots effort to make face masks for individuals and organizations working with the general public. She’s married to Chattanooga attorney David Elliott of Grant, Konvalinka & Harrison. - Photograph provided

Kelley Elliott has just talked with the Boys & Girls Club of Chattanooga, and she sounds like she’s out of breath.

As people everywhere are isolating themselves in a bid to avoid catching the coronavirus, Elliott is bringing volunteers together to make and deliver face masks in Hamilton County.

The Boys & Girls Club just told Kelley it wants 400 of the masks, which are made of thick materials like denim, flannel and heavy cotton and are designed to cover a person’s nose, mouth, cheeks and chin.

“They’re preparing meals for people and are asking for protection,” Elliott says. “It’s been a busy morning.”

Elliott, founder of Tennessee Volunteer Seamstresses, does not sew herself. Rather, she’s receiving orders and farming out jobs to a growing network of helpers who are assisting others from the safety of their homes.

Inspired by a group of seamstresses who banded together to make masks in California, Elliott founded TVS March 20. Within days, dozens of Tennessee seamstresses had joined the Facebook group she launched as a gathering place for volunteers.

Others joined the effort and offered to donate materials and pick up and deliver masks.

Word about the masks spread like wildfire and requests started pouring in, beginning with individuals who work with the public and growing to include organizations that are providing aid to vulnerable populations throughout Hamilton County.

“A woman who works with truck drivers at a gas station asked for some,” Kelley says. “Then a dialysis clinic requested 600. People still have to receive dialysis and are stuck sitting together in a room.”

TVS has also made masks for Hospice of Chattanooga and United Way of Chattanooga, which is delivering food to seniors and providing other forms of care for the county’s elderly residents.

Elliott says the masks TVS makes are not medical grade and do not protect the wearer from catching the coronavirus. Instead, they provide a layer of basic protection.

“Hospitals can’t use our handmade masks because they can’t prevent someone from catching the virus,” Elliott clarifies.

Some of Elliott’s volunteers are making masks with pockets that can accommodate an N95 respirator, which the U.S. Food & Drug Administration says can block up to 95% of small airborne particles.

This motivated two local veterinary hospitals to offer to donate their N95 filters to area hospitals if TVS provided the masks.

(The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not recommend the general public wear N95 respirators to protect themselves from the coronavirus. Rather, the best way to prevent illness is to avoid being exposed to the virus, says the CDC.)

The Facebook group is serving as more than a gather point; it’s also allowing its members to share ideas and best practices, discuss materials and ask questions, Elliott says.

“It’s a platform for sharing, learning and support,” Elliott says. “When we ran out of elastic, some of our volunteers began using hair ties. Seeing how these seamstresses are filling a need when there’s nothing to use has been incredible.”

The group has also provided a means of requesting masks. When a nurse who was 20 weeks pregnant asked for masks for herself and her husband, who’s also a nurse, several seamstresses offered to fulfill her request.

“We need masks,” the woman wrote. “We’re doing our best to stay healthy.”

“I can make some tomorrow. I’ll let you know when they’re ready,” replied one of the group’s members.

In similar fashion, when someone posted that Chattanooga Community Kitchen wanted at least 50 reusable masks, multiple members offered to pitch in.

These and other stories that have risen out of TVS have amazed Elliott. One of her favorites involves an 81-year-old widow and former home economics teacher who has rallied seamstresses in Dunlap. “People want to do something to help,” Elliott says.

TVS began as a statewide effort, but when similar groups started appearing across the state, Elliott pulled her group back to focus on Hamilton County.

She then started receiving calls from seamstresses in other cities and counties and decided to serve as a contact for people across the state who want to contribute their time and skills to making masks. Now, when someone from Nashville offers to volunteer, for example, she steers them to a group in that city.

In addition, Elliott is providing other organizers with a blueprint for starting their own groups.

Although Elliott jokes that she can’t sew a stitch but can do remarkable things with a glue gun, her role as the leader of TVS gives her a way to use the organizational skills he employs at her day job, which entails nonpartisan voter education and registration.

Regardless, Elliott refuses to accept any of the credit for the work TVS is doing. Rather, she says the praise belongs to her seamstresses.

“They are talented, hard-working and selfless,” she says. “It’s been awesome to work with folks I wouldn’t have otherwise had an opportunity to meet.”