By Barbara Kessler, TJJD Communications
Like many direct care workers in many sectors, TJJD staff have been wearing masks every day on the job.
And no one is rocking the masked look better than the staff at the Mart facility, thanks to family and volunteer staff who went on a hunt for donated masks and the happy coincidence that the Waco area has turned out to be a Texas hotbed of mask production.
But before we get into all that, a little background:
TJJD employees each receive a medical grade disposable mask as they check in for work, which helps protect the youth from exposure to any potential germs that an employee might spread when they sneeze, cough or talk. This is part of many steps the agency put into place to help slow the spread of coronavirus and protect TJJD secure facilities and halfway houses. (See TJJD’s protective measures: https://bit.ly/3bQnj98 )
But cloth masks also are suitable for protecting others from potential droplet spray and TJJD staff members are allowed to wear reusable cloth masks. (By the way, anyone who’s sneezing or coughing a lot or feels sick or is running a fever is not allowed in to work.)
Homemade cloth coverings are acceptable and recommended for use in public settings, according to the CDC, and simply should be washed routinely, based on their use. (CDC guidelines on masks: https://bit.ly/2VLtfLa )
And let’s be honest, homemade masks can be quite comfortable and reassuring when they fit nicely, and even attractive, though of course that’s not the point.
Volunteer and family staff at Mart's McLennan County State Juvenile Correctional Facility were thinking about how to help out with masks and calling people to see if they could locate volunteer seamstresses.
A few calls in they hit the motherlode. A former trauma nurse, Reyna Perales Reyes, and her seamstress mother, Matea Perales, had created Waco Masks Seamstress for COVID and Texas Seamstress for Crisis, organizing a fleet of home seamstresses to supply masks to medical workers facing gaps in protective gear at local hospitals and nursing homes.
The seamstresses, based in their homes across the Waco area, had become a corps of more than 200 and were producing hundreds of masks each day.
Reyes said the organization sprang to life in a burst over its first weekend in mid-March, helped by the Facebook page she set up (Waco Masks Seamstress for COVID) and a community yearning to help out.
“I added all my friends, and I know some community leaders,” said Reyes, who now works in social marketing and serves as a board member of Caritas. “They knew I would organize it well. They invited their friends, and those friends invited their friends.”
As word of the effort grew, businesses jumped in. Soon Waco Masks Seamstress was working out of a building owned by event-supplier Action Rental, which had had to close under pandemic rules. The owner simply handed the key to her, Reyes said, and the building become the hub where donated fabrics could be accepted and stored, patterns assembled, and masks sorted and packaged.
Working with Waco Emergency Operations Center, Reyes, CEO of Texas Seamstress for Crisis, got the new business designated as essential and began collaborating with officials in emergency relief to assure the masks went where most needed.
More businesses and several churches signed on, providing in-kind goods and donations. Banana Scrubs, which had closed a few years earlier, sent over bolts of warehoused fabric, and Shipp Belting began dye-cutting fabric pieces to assist the seamstresses. Masks went out, and continue to go out, to Baylor Scott and White and Providence hospitals, police and fire departments, nursing homes, health clinics and others in critical services. After a few weeks, the group began fulfilling requests from other types of local businesses employing essential workers such as HEB grocers (which also donates to the project) and a local meatpacking plant.
Just as quickly as orders come in, they go out, Reyes said, estimating that each day the operation takes in and sends out 400 or more sewn, washed and ready-to-use double-ply masks.
“They’re still going full speed ahead,” she said. “But I’ve lived 40 years in Waco and Waco is just like that; if you need work done, you’ll find someone to do it. I’ve not had many people drop out, and that, to me, is just amazing.”
And it was also amazing to Mart staff, when they discovered that their direct-care workers could qualify for the donated masks, now that the need in the medical community was easing.
Last week, Family Liaison Robin Black, Community Volunteer Coordinator Tanya Rosas and Assistant Superintendent Emily Shaw gratefully received 400 masks from the group, enough for everyone on staff to receive one.
The Mart facility also had earlier received 25 hand-sewn masks made by Janice Hinton at the request of Mart volunteer Patti Wiley who wanted Phoenix Unit staff to have masks.
As Rosas and Black handed out the masks, they couldn’t help but notice that the donated face coverings, stitched in a dazzling mix of patterns and colors, create a true bright spot in uncertain times.
“When they come and get them,” Rosas said, “staff are like, ‘Oh my gosh, that is so sweet for those people to have done that for us’.”
Photo 1: Family Liaison Robin Black, Waco Masks Seamstress CEO Reyna Reyes and Asst. Supt. Emily Shaw posed with their masks.
Photo 2: MCSJCF Supt. Michelle Havranek shows the first batch of masks received.