Editor’s note: At Weelunk, we’re all about keeping you connected to your community. Because that looks a little different right now, we’re bringing you ways to engage while staying safe and healthy. We hope Weelunk can continue to connect you to Wheeling — no matter where you are.

Who are those mask makers? It’s a new batch of superheroes emerging amid the coronavirus pandemic.

There are many heroes out there right now — health care professionals on the frontlines, Walmart workers on the cashier lines and postal workers keeping the lines of communication open.

But across the country, a “mask-making machine” is buzzing along — and the Ohio Valley has joined the thread of helpers.

sewing machine and fabric

Annie Borselli uses a vintage sewing machine to make facemasks.

SPREADING LOVE, NOT THE VIRUS

Stay-at-home mom Annie Borselli of Bethlehem says she’s “not much of a sewer.”

But when she saw that a lot of people on Facebook were making fabric facemasks, she jumped in.

“I had inherited a ton of fabric and supplies from my mom when she passed two years ago — I had cotton and elastic.”

She’s lucky on the elastic front — apparently, it’s in short supply.

She adapted a pattern to use from a couple of different ones out there, is using a soft baby flannel for the mask backing — nurses have told her that’s the most comfortable — and she’s stitching up masks in a variety of sizes.

three masks

Annie makes the facemasks in a variety of sizes.

Annie has been a real mask machine, singlehandedly whipping up a whopping 40 to 50 a day. That’s no small feat for the mom of a 2½-year-old and a 6-month-old!

She cuts and measures at night, presses and pins during the day and sews until around 11 p.m.

She made about 30 for the labor and delivery department at Wheeling Hospital. And she filled an order for the Peterson Rehabilitation and Geriatric Center. While the homemade masks aren’t medical-grade, they work well over the N95 masks.

Annie puts the masks in a plastic bag, waits 24 hours, and then hangs the bag on a porch railing for pick-up.

plastic bag on handrail

To keep everyone safe, Annie puts the completed masks in a plastic bag for pick-up.

She also took some to the post office, UPS Store and pizza shops.

“They’re in contact with all of us. This will help the community, not just the medical workers,” she said.

Annie is hoping that others will jump in … the need is great out there for these masks, she pointed out. “They don’t have to be perfect,” she said, noting that some moms even have their kids help.

TEACHABLE MOMENT

Chyanne Bennett is one of those moms. She’s using the “Bennett Family Project” as a teaching moment for children Jude, 14, Blake, 7, and Ansyl, 5.

Bennett, an artist with a bachelor’s and master’s degree in fine arts and soon-to-be Realtor, used to do a lot of quilting, so when Facebook friend Borselli asked for help in producing fabric facemasks, she decided that was something she could do to help.

chyanne sewing

Chyanne sews facemasks in between homeschooling and making meals for her family.

So in between the homeschooling and making lunches for her family — husband Jeremy is working from home as well — she sews.

Enclosed with each mask is a letter, that Jude is writing, with instructions on how to use the masks, along with a bright message of hope … “stay safe,” “be happy,” “stay healthy,” “smile.” Ansyl and Blake are coloring pictures on the envelopes. Jude is also helping to cut the fabric for the masks.

  • Ansyl, 5, and Blake, 7, color envelopes in which the masks are mailed.

Not only are the kids helping people across the country — Saugerties, New York; Newport News, Virginia; Millersburg, Ohio; Moon Township, Pennsylvania; as well as the local area, including Reynold’s Memorial Hospital — but Jude is learning penmanship, and all of them are learning the importance of being helpers.

“They understand they’re helping. It’s gone way beyond making masks.”

Chyanne is hoping to make 100 to 200 — she’ll stop when she runs out of supplies. But, she’d welcome a donation of elastic! While fabric ties work, the elastic is faster, she said.

Some of her masks are going to a small nursing home in upstate New York, where the mom of a friend of hers is living. That friend, Wheeling native Adriane Schramm, mentioned to Chyanne that the residents would love to receive letters, too, so she reached out to Facebook friend and Bridgeport native Jennifer Maxwell who lives in Statesville, North Carolina.

Jennifer’s son’s class now is working on a project to write personalized cards and letters for the Ivy Lodge residents — including Adriane’s mom, Jeanne Schramm, a former West Liberty resident. (READ: Women in History: Wheeling Women Rewrite History Books)

And yet, another thread in the machine of helpers. “That’s the beauty of social media. We can reach beyond what we can do here,” she said.

LEARNING TO SEW

Teen girls living at the Youth Services System Inc. Helinski Shelter are also sewing cloth facemasks, said Betsy Bethel-McFarland, communications manager at YSS.

woman in facemask

Margo Scott, YSS Helinski Shelter director, tries on one of the masks she created.

Margo Scott, director of the Helinski Shelter — which is an emergency shelter for youth — said she is teaching the girls to measure, cut, follow a pattern and sew the masks.

“With school being closed and the governor’s executive order to stay home, the girls have a lot of time on their hands. Sewing passes the time, is therapeutic, and is a life skill they can take with them when they leave the shelter,” Bethel-McFarland noted.

JoAnn Fabric in St. Clairsville and local residents donated fabric, thread and elastic to construct the masks. Three YSS employees and one friend of YSS lent four sewing machines. Scott said the assistant manager at JoAnn has been fielding calls from people asking for masks. Scott and the girls are working on 50 masks, which she will return to the fabric store for distribution.

“We know 10 are going to CVS in Martins Ferry, and 15 are going to a nursing home, I’m not sure which one,” Scott said. The other 10 will be distributed as needed, and the girls will keep making them as long as there is a demand.

“It’s nice because it gives them something to do together, and it’s helping out during this crazy crisis. We talk while we’re working, and that’s good for them, too. I’ve set up an assembly line so some of the girls will measure and mark, some will cut, and four will sew on our borrowed machines. I’m excited about it,” Scott said.

CEO JUMPS ON THE BANDWAGON

“There’s not a lot I can do … except stay home and contribute,” commented Melissa Ceo of Wheeling. “So, I’m going to sew masks,” she decided.

In fact, she was sewing at her Wheeling home as she was being interviewed by Weelunk. Although she couldn’t find any eighth-inch elastic for said masks.

Ceo is working from home rather than at C.A. House. Her husband, Gavin Hartle, a math, STEM and engineering teacher at John Marshall, is also at home. With their two kids — Ellie, 5, and Desmond, 4.

woman sewing

Melissa is hard at work at her sewing machine.

She happened to read an article in which U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin encouraged West Virginians to pitch in and help. The first project he pitched was sewing medical masks and gowns.

Ceo’s mother-in-law, Teri Hartle, found an easy pattern on YouTube for the masks, and Melissa was off and sewing — after a curbside pick-up of tightly-woven 100 percent cotton from JoAnn Fabric.

Learn how to sew a facemask

The YouTube video that gives instructions for the mask has over 2 million views.

Melissa put out a call to a nationwide Facebook group that she’s part of, asking if anyone would like her to send a mask.

She was inundated. Some asked if they could be on a waiting list. She heard from a police sergeant in Sacramento, California, who needs masks for her officers working with the public.

Besides the police department, Melissa is sending masks to Indiana, Alabama, Wisconsin, Montana and Arizona. Her mother-in-law is making about 50 masks to send to the military in California.

And of course, they’re both providing them free of charge.

The project gives her “a semblance of feeling in control,” she said. “Even if there’s not much.”

THE SILVER LINING

“I’m just trying to help people to have the ability to take extra caution, to be safe and to be healthy. … And it’s neat seeing this positive momentum. There’s a lot of good going on with people taking a positive role in the community,” Annie said.

Annie’s creations.

“Last night I met with some girlfriends on Zoom to check in with each other during the quarantine,” Adriane shared. “When asked what we each looked forward to when the virus and quarantine have passed, every single one of us said the same thing — a hug. I really look forward to that first hug with my mom and to all our loved ones that we cannot see right now. I feel an overarching beautiful creation developing from within this corona quarantine. Something much stronger than fear. Compassion, empathy, sincere understanding that we are a human family that needs each other to sustain. Strange to think that it took a big scary virus to bring us closer together than ever, but it has.”

“We are being forcefully reminded to be humble, [to] remember what really matters,” Chyanne said. “We have taken more walks and appreciated more time together, focusing on home life and trying to help others. If the virus wasn’t out, we would be working and rushing through life without a care in the world about each other.

“There’s always a silver lining … sometimes we just have to dig a little deeper to find it,” she said.

• Having spent nearly 38 years as reporter, bureau chief, lifestyles editor and managing editor at The Times Leader, and design editor at The Intelligencer and Wheeling News-Register, Phyllis Sigal now serves as Weelunk’s managing editor. She lives in Wheeling with her husband Bruce Wheeler. Along with their two children, son-in-law and two grandchildren, food, wine, travel, theater and music are close to their hearts.

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