Update: Medical masks being sewn by Georgia College costume supervisor

Cathleen O'Neal is making masks for area hospitals.

Update: Medical masks being sewn by Georgia College costume supervisor

(See bottom of story for update.)

D oing her part by staying at home didn’t seem like enough. Cathleen O’Neal wanted to do more to help her neighbors and the world get through the COVID-19 crisis.

As Georgia College’s Costume Supervisor—charged with making costumes for productions performed by the department of theatre—O’Neal put her sewing skills to good use. In less than a week, she constructed and donated 30 surgical and N-95 masks for hospitals in Atlanta.

Cathleen O'Neal sewing masks from her home in Covington.
Cathleen O'Neal sewing masks from her home in Covington.
Working on her next batch now, O’Neal hopes to also donate masks to Navicent Health in Baldwin County. Hospitals globally are running short of protective facial guards for medical personnel to wear.

It’s all about being resourceful and trying to help out in ways that you can. Even if you’re only allowed to do one donation, please do it. Because the longer this goes on, the more masks they’re gonna need.
– Cathleen O'Neal
“It’s all about being resourceful and trying to help out in ways that you can,” O’Neal said. “Even if you’re only allowed to do one donation, please do it. Because the longer this goes on, the more masks they’re gonna need.”

On March 25, O’Neal joined a rapidly growing Facebook group called, “Sewing Masks for Area Hospitals COVID-19-Atlanta.” It began almost two weeks ago with three women, who wanted to do more. By yesterday, it’d grown to more than 6,000 volunteers. The group has donated more than 6,000 masks, and health care facilities like The Children’s Hospital of Atlanta are calling for more.

O'Neal ironing masks.
O'Neal ironing masks.
It takes about 10 minutes for O’Neal to make one pleated, surgical mask. About 50 surgical masks can be sewn in a day without breaks. The N-95s are more involved with wired pockets around the nose that hold filters.

The Atlanta Facebook group has four basic styles people can choose, along with more technical patterns. Only cotton material can be used, since cotton is a natural filter. O’Neal is using fabric leftover from past student projects—colorful, polka dotted, striped and even featuring baby elephants. She washes the fabric and frequently sanitizes her cutting tools.

When a plastic bag of 30 masks is completed, O’Neal drops the donation at a bin in Covington, where she lives. It’s a “no-contact” contribution. She drops the bag in the bin on a designated porch, wipes with sanitizer provided at the location and goes home. The number of bins has increased to dozens in the Atlanta area.

Just sitting around the house, watching the news, it gets very daunting, especially if you’re helping by staying at home, but you want to do something more. This really spoke to me. It’s a great way for the community and those of us in the theatre and costume world to help out in our way. It warms my heart that I can do something.
– Cathleen O'Neal

O’Neal was quick to find a way to help in the coronavirus crisis. She also acted fast to rearrange the final project for her Intro to Costume class.

O'Neal working from home.
O'Neal working from home.
Some students don’t have sewing machines at home, so O’Neal was afraid she’d have to cancel the last assignment: making a full garment. Students were going to use commercial patterns to make dresses for young girls in third world countries. Then O’Neal noticed the nonprofit, “Dress a Girl Around the World,” allows for easier T-shirt dresses to be constructed by hand.

She sent students packets with all the materials they need for the dress, which attaches a rectangle of fabric as a skirt to a child’s T-shirt. O’Neal’s making a video tutorial for students to follow, so they don’t feel “overwhelmed.”

Students, who are done early and have sewing machines at home, will be given extra credit for making surgical masks. They’ll send completed masks to O’Neal for delivery.

“I’ve gotten such a good response from the class. They’re glad I didn’t have to flat-out cancel the project,” she said. “I thought this might be something fun for the students to do in the midst of having to switch online for all of their core classes.”

To help O’Neal make more masks: Students, university personnel and community residents can send donations of cotton fabric, wire, elastic and even pipe cleaners. To make delivery arrangements, please email her directly at cathleen.oneal@gcsu.edu.

Cathleen O'Neal on making masks.

UPDATE: In two weeks, O'Neal has constructed 140 masks—donating 110 surgical and N-95 face covers for Atlanta area hospitals and, just recently, 30 N-95 face masks to meet a critical need at Eatonton Health & Rehabilitation nursing home.

She found out about the nursing home shortage from Shannon Blair, a 2018 graduate of Georgia College, who’ll receive her master’s in criminal justice in May. Blair is the home's social service director, charged with the “mental wellness” of 78 residents.

Shannon Blair
Shannon Blair
Since COVID-19, the nursing home is experiencing a shortage of protective masks for its nurses and staff. Blair had worn the same mask all week. When she saw this Front Page article about O’Neal, she reached out for help.

“The struggle for protection is everywhere, but this has given our facility one less worry in the middle of the crisis,” Blair said. “Many people think about hospitals, but they forget the nursing homes are struggling too.”

“With this donation, we’re able to put full focus on the residents and not have to think about how to conserve masks,” she said.

Blair worries about her residents, who are older. Many have previous health conditions. The facility is now closed to visitors, and Blair tries to make up for the loss of seeing family.

“Although the situation is scary, I have never once thought of leaving these residents alone,” she said. “My biggest challenge is that I can no longer give them a hug or hold their hand.”

When she read about O’Neal sewing masks, Blair said she “actually cried because, as a Bobcat, I am super proud of my college. Never have I been so proud of the place I work and the school I attend.”