Retired women ‘give back’ by sewing cloth masks for Sacramento’s health care workers

·4 min read

Two retired women honed in their sewing skills while quarantining at home, making about 350 masks for families, health care workers and community members since March.

One of them is Beverly Tanaka. She has been sewing since 8. Her grandmother, an avid sewer, inspired the same passion in her and taught her the craft. She got her first sewing machine in junior high as a present from her father. Whenever she has spare time, she sews.

After Gov. Gavin Newsom’s statewide stay-at-home orders were issued in March to slow the spread of the coronavirus, Tanaka, who has asthma and is over 65 years old, stayed at home most of the time for safety. But she decided to maximize her time indoors.

When she’s not babysitting her grandson, she picks up cotton fabric and elastics from her stock at home and sews cloth masks for her family and friends. As the nation began recording more positive cases of the virus, she wanted to protect her close ones.

But a strong urge to make masks for strangers quickly followed, Tanaka said. While grocery shopping during senior hours at a Walmart, Tanaka saw a shopper strolling along the aisles with a T-shirt wrapped around his face. Another had a thin scarf draped around her chin.

“If I had a (mask), I would have just given them one,” she recalled thinking.

Tanaka called and interviewed friends who work as health care professionals on their preferences on masks, from the fabric to ties or elastics. She went online to look for mask patterns and followed the instructions given from UC Davis Medical Center.

“I want to make it clean and easy to wear,” she said.

Her way of giving back

All the masks were made with eight boxes of fabric at her own cost. Tanaka made masks for friends and their co-workers at Sutter Medical Center in Sacramento, Kaiser Permanente South Sacramento, and the San Diego Podiatry Group. She prepared up to three masks for each worker to wear. Her friends helped her deliver the masks.

It is her way of giving back to society, she said.

Tanaka made sure she washed the fabric twice with hot water before pressing and cutting it, to make sure the cloth masks wouldn’t shrink too much. She made certain the elastics are long enough so it would not hurt the back of the user’s ears. When not in use, she covered the fabric to keep it as clean as possible.

Tanaka is now sewing for seniors at the ACC Senior Services, which just put on a telethon to raise funds for the Big Day of Giving.

“I am going to keep making more until people come to pick it up,” Tanaka said. “It doesn’t matter who gets it as long, as whoever gets it needs it.”

When she saw pictures of health care workers wearing the masks she made, Tanaka got teary-eyed.

“I wish they didn’t have to wear mine,” she said. “I wish (they were wearing) the kind the professionals should be wearing. I am going to keep going until I run out of supplies.”

Ann Tsukamoto, who met Tanaka through church, also started sewing cloth masks for her family in March. As a retired nurse at a local hospital, Tsukamoto could only imagine what it is like to go to work without protective gear. Worries would loom over her every day on whether she could be infected and then pass the virus to her family.

A few weeks later, Tsukamoto’s former co-workers called to see she could make some for them. They would like to have one in hand, just in case, she said. She made around 50 for them with her own materials and some from Tanaka.

Then, a friend told her about “Bumblebees of Hope” – a Facebook group founded by a group of nurses and previously known as “Face Maskers With Love” – to make and donate masks. The group provides materials for masks and delivers to hospitals, clinics, nursing homes, police stations and community centers. Volunteers also wash and press the masks before they go through a sanitation cycle and quality check.

“Our fight against this pandemic needs to start in our community so it doesn’t end up in hospitals and collapse (the systems),” said Joslyn Lewis, one of the co-founders and a registered nurse. With about 300 active volunteers who made and delivered 7,000 masks in April, the group is raising funds on GoFundMe.

Deciding to volunteer, Tsukamoto picked the materials up from Lewis and spent two weeks preparing and sewing 50 masks. She is helping the group cut around 400 bias tape to make ties.

“I know we are not gonna have vaccines for a while, so we are gonna wear these masks for a while,” Tsukamoto said. “We should wear masks to protect each other from getting it and spreading it. It is important for people to know that just because you are asymptomatic, you could also give it to other people.

“There is a lot you can do for the community to fight (COVID-19). We are not the front-line health care workers, but one mask at a time is going to make a big difference.”

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