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Super Heroes Wear Masks, but Super-Super Heroes Make Them!

Super Heroes Wear Masks, but Super-Super Heroes Make Them!

JOINT BASE McGUIRE, DIX, LAKEHURST, NJ – What do fictional super heroes, such as Batman and Robin, Green Hornet, and the Lone Ranger, have in common? They all wear masks!  They do so to protect their identities. Real super heroes – first responders and day-to-day “normal” people – however, will wear a mask to protect themselves and others during a pandemic.  Behind the scenes, though, exists a group of unsung super-super heroes – the mask-makers!

These Incredibles (people, not Pixar) are producing personal protective equipment around the country to stem the COVID-19 spread.  They go about their work with keen eyes, deft fingers, blazing machines, and hearts of golden thread.  Like the wind, you do not see them, you just feel the impact their hand-crafted masks have on the environment.

What began on April 9, 2020, in response to a request from the New Jersey Department of Human Services to assist with producing personal protection masks for hospitals and other first responders during the COVID-19 crisis, soon became an official CAP corporate disaster relief mission.  Under the coordination and leadership of CAP Maj. Lorraine Denby and 1st. Lt. Carol Faaland-Kronmaier of the Raritan Valley Composite Squadron, and Senior Member Catherine Lackey of the Jack Schweiker Composite Squadron, the New Jersey wing literally spun into action.

“At the beginning of the pandemic, I received an email from Overlook Hospital in Summit, NJ, asking for help from the community to sew masks,” recalls Maj. Denby.  “This was before Civil Air Patrol’s official involvement.”

“Elastic was already impossible to find, so I posted a request for elastic and fabric on the Next Door website.  One of the replies put me in touch with Dr. Sarah Shell, who had contact with the NYC GoFundMe initiative.  This source provided a ready supply of elastic, nose ties and fabric.  I put Sarah in touch with the Civil Air Patrol to seek additional assistance with the masks. Lt. Col. Robert Jennings, New Jersey Wing’s vice commander for operations, was able to get approval for an unfunded, but official, CAP mission.  The rest, as they say, is history.”

The call soon went out to New Jersey wing members, who came forward to provide their special talents to the cause. Some had absolutely no talent in this realm but still came with huge hearts and a desire to help. Then there were those who wanted to volunteer for Air Force-assigned COVID-19 missions but were ineligible due to age limits or other factors. They relished a chance to be part of this historical operation.  The corporate CAP mission provided this opportunity.

“When the mask mission became available, my wife, Sylvia, and I finally had a way to participate and do our small part to help our community,” said 1st. Lt. Peter Hinge of the Lone Eagle Composite Squadron. “For almost 5 months, our dining room has turned into a ‘mask factory’.”

Cadet 1st. Lt. Alondra Rosas of the Jersey City Composite Squadron adds, "As a cadet on the younger side, none of the current [Air Force-assigned] missions had been an option for me. So, when this mission started, I was excited and ready to go, even though I did not know how to use a sewing machine. Being part of this mission, to me, is being a part of something bigger.”

Also desperately wanting to be part of the mission but without a machine nor anyone in the family who could sew, Cadet Master Sgt. Arjun Suresh of the Hillsborough Composite Squadron purchased his own pair sewing scissors and became a master fabric cutter.  Along with Senior Member Girlie Tamayo and Cadet Technical Sgt. Miguel Tamayo, Suresh is considered one of the mission’s top material preppers.

And so, it began.  Personal sewing machines were brought out of moth balls for the project. Many broke down under the heavy load and were either repaired or replaced so the mission could continue.  One of the workhorses called up for battle was a hand-cranked 1918 New National model sewing machine manufactured in Missouri during the First World War! 

Having never sewn anything in his life, 2nd Lt. John Cann started producing masks on a child’s sewing machine!  He quickly gave up on that idea and bought a new one.  After a little coaching, Cann has been able to produce 135 masks, thus far.

The 127 volunteer mask marauders, with the tasks of fabric cutters, sewers, and drivers, are comprised of 77 cadets. The remainder is made up of seniors, family members, friends, and neighbors spread throughout New Jersey.  Additional volunteers have also joined the team effort from other wings, such as Pennsylvania, New York and North Carolina.

The bulk of the fabric, elastic paracord and nose ties has come from Dr. Sarah Shell and NYC GoFundMe; however, many of the mission volunteers have donated elastic, cotton fabric and even some paracord and nose ties. Some volunteers obtained the donations using their own Facebook pages and other sources.

Cutting 60 rectangles and the elastic needed to complete 30 masks can take up to two hours. Methods have included using hand sewing scissors, a rotary cutter and mat, and an electric rotary cutter.  Once the material is prepped, it takes an average of 30 minutes to machine sew one mask. Sewers complete one to three “kits” of 30 masks in about a week. This adds up to 15- to 45- volunteer manhours on the sewing machines, alone.   

Currently, the top stitchers have been identified as Lt. Col. Marianne Ferland with over 1260 masks, and Cadet 2nd. Lt. Alondra Rosas, who has sewn more than 757 masks.  Remember, Rosas started with no sewing machine skills!  She was trained by her mother, Eva, who has also assisted in the mission.

Other top needle masters include Maj. Lorraine Denby with 647 masks, 1st. Lt. Jens Hinge with 426, Cadets 2nd. Lt. Purnima Mehta and 2nd. Lt. Varija Mehta producing 362 masks each, for a total of 726, and 1st. Lt. Helen Wu, Lt. Col. Carol McCloud, and Cadet Staff Sgt. Rubitha Balasubramani who have produced over 300 masks each.

Cadet Rosas states, “By sewing masks for those who need them, I feel like I am helping more people than just myself. The mission is a way for me to give back to the people who need help because I know they would do the same if the occasion ever came up.”

Rosas’ mom, Eva, adds, "No one ever knows when they may need help, so since I am in a position where I can help, I just wanted to put my grain of sand in the pile. CAP's role in the efforts is incredible. Being able to see the various ways that CAP has been able to help throughout the years is amazing.”

Not only do the CAP volunteers produce the masks, they also deliver them to hospitals, nursing homes, police, rescue squads, immunocompromised patients, shelters, food banks, group homes, and to child advocacy organizations that provide services to children and teens, including at-risk preschoolers, etc.

To date, CAP drivers, such as Maj. Brian Gross, Senior Member Francis McCarthy, Senior Member Helena Gaither, 1st. Lt. Parminder Bansil and Senior Member Kurt Stofko (Bansil and Stofko also sew), have made 114 trips to 75 locations to deliver the raw materials to the coordinators and then the finished products to the requestors.  These trips average three hours, with some taking over 8 hours. 

Maj. Denby emphasizes, “The beauty of this mission is that it not only provided something that was much needed for the pandemic, it provided an opportunity for those who could not leave their homes to participate in helping in this crisis.  For me personally it gave me a real purpose during this stressful time.”

“Another beauty of this mission is that a number of cadets learned a new life skill.  Maj Denby worked on a step-by-step lesson with the novice cadet to teach them how to sew the masks.  This included basic skills like threading the machine, filing the bobbin, backstitching, etc.,” added co-coordinator 1st. Lt. Carol Faaland-Kronmaier.

While the team has surpassed 10,300 masks during the on-going missions, they are continuing the effort until no longer needed.   

“While the need at the hospitals and health care workers has diminished,” according to Faaland-Kronmaier, “there are still nonprofit places desperate for help.  In one day, we received requests for 450 masks from low-income nursing homes and non-profit organizations for people with developmental disabilities.  One place said that they are reusing paper masks due to their short supply.”

“On another day,” she added, “we received a request from a 170-resident low-income senior housing facility. The manager was using his own money to purchase as many masks as he could from a dollar store to protect high-risk residents.”

The coordinators and their team have received many thank you letters, notes, and Facebook posts from low-income senior housing centers whose residents were thrilled with the cotton colorful masks sent to them.

The impact the mask operation has had on CAP members is exponential and reaches well beyond what they have accomplished during the mission itself.

For Cadet 1st. Lt. Varija Mehta, "COVID-19, despite being a global pandemic, has really brought this community together. I am so fortunate to have this opportunity to do something to help others, and for that, I will be forever grateful.”

Her mom, 2nd. Lt. Purnima Mehta, adds, "When I was young my dad used to tell me - If you have the ability to help your community, then do so in every way possible - and because of Civil Air Patrol I got this opportunity to help my community.”

“This mission was a lifeline for the volunteers as well as the recipients,” claims Denby. “At the beginning of the pandemic, many needed something to do as they were sheltering in place. This mission filled the need to be able to sew from home and the seniors receiving the hand sewn colorful masks have also been thrilled with the generosity of the donations.”

One person called from Fellowship senior housing because she was thrilled with the beautiful masks.  She said, “It was like Christmas!” To the seniors stuck in their low- income residences, with little outside contact due to the COVID 19 epidemic, the masks give them a little joy, as well as safety. Children also appreciate the colorful masks since their world has been turned upside down during this pandemic. CAP members have been called “unsung heroes” in accomplishing this vital mission.

Cadet Staff Sgt. Rubith Balasubramani of the Jersey City Composite Squadron states her role in this very eloquently. “This mission is a great opportunity for my family and I to make a difference during this tough time. It is great that we can help in any way possible, using the skills we already have.  We are grateful to be a force helping to stop the spread of this battle that we are facing.”

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