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Student organizes mask making

In the face of the spreading coronavirus and increasing shortages of personal protective equipment in hospitals, a Northwestern Lehigh student has stepped up to provide critical supplies for workers on the front line.

Kourtney Keim of Lowhill Township, a 10th grader and member of Girl Scout Senior Troop 682, brought together dozens of community volunteers to sew masks for local health care workers.

The group has manufactured and donated more than 1,500 masks as of April 3 to Lehigh Valley Health Network, KidsPeace and St. Luke’s University Health Network, in addition to house call drop-offs for health care workers and deliveries for private practices, nursing homes and hospices. Masks are being delivered three times per week.

Speaking to The Press via email, Keim said the project started March 20 with a Facebook post describing how homemade masks were being sewn for hospital workers in Indiana.

This inspired her to reach out to local health organizations to fulfill a similar need.

“I reached out to Jane Wrisley, LVHN vice president of donations, and Michelle Zenie from Pediatric Cancer Foundation Lehigh Valley, who helped us make sure the designs we were using were appropriate for the hospitals,” Keim said.

“They both enthusiastically asserted the need for handmade masks was dire, and then this project was born.”

Working with her mother, Theresa, who served as a “sounding board for her ideas,” she maintained contact with helpers and assisted with material pickups and drop-offs.

Kourtney said volunteers were organized through Facebook posts, texts and emails from all parts of the community.

“The Northwestern Lehigh community is definitely exemplifying courage, commitment and care in these difficult times,” Theresa Keim said in an email to The Press. “Some members of her team are neighbors, students, former students, teachers, local parents, friends, former district residents and some people who just heard about it and joined in.”

To minimize the risk of infection for everyone involved, Keim has her daughter practice social distancing at all times, only conducting outside pickups, drop-offs and deliveries, and sanitizing after each trip.

Kourtney said in addition to sewing, she has primarily worked to maintain contact with different organizations, stay up-to-date with the best mask designs and construction, encourage volunteers to join the effort, organize material distributions and collections, and conduct mask drop-offs at designated donation centers.

She also described how each mask is “a little bit unique” given the differences in material, design, stitching and intended purpose, and noted that assembly tasks have been distributed among different groups of volunteers.

“We have separate teams of people that cut fabric and elastic, gather materials or put it all together,” she said. “The idea is to streamline the process for everyone so each helper can focus on his or her portion of the task … Moving materials into the hands of those who can each do a part has helped increase our output.”

“Kourtney’s efforts have greatly increased the total number of masks produced,” Theresa Keim said, noting her daughter’s initial goal was to provide 500 masks.

She described how the volunteer group worked with everything from sewing machines and scissors to rotary cutters to make masks.

She noted how they worked hard to source additional material or create inventive substitutes when supplies ran low, such as replacing elastic with clean T-shirt material.

“All of these puzzle pieces were fit together by Kourtney to help everyone be as productive as possible given their skill set and availability.”

Kourtney said as additional needs arose, the identified groups were added as recipients.

“Originally, I was just going to donate to the LVHN collection center because of their desperate need for masks,” she said.

“Many medical personnel still risk illness to themselves or others because they don’t have proper supplies available.

“A few people also reached out about need at KidsPeace, so we added them to our list of recipients. By the end of the day on April 3, we will have donated more than 500 masks to KidsPeace, over 800 to LVHN and more than 200 to SLHN.”

In addition to the homemade mask and material donations, additional personal protective equipment was also collected and delivered to LVHN’s drop-off location, including 32 pairs of safety goggles, and two boxes each of nitrile gloves and N95 respirators.

Some 144 boxes of Girl Scout Cookies from a canceled sale were also sponsored and donated.

“This project is less than two weeks old, but we’ve still managed to collect many gloves, goggles and hand-sewn masks from many generous people,” Kourtney said. “This project would be impossible without everyone’s hard work and dedication, which is a really amazing thing to see in times like this.”

Theresa Keim said she is very concerned about the coronavirus pandemic, noting the family has members and friends who are immunocompromised or health care workers, but said she is also “exceedingly proud” of her daughter’s work, leadership and sense of community responsibility.

She noted Kourtney “has lived out all the parts of the Girl Scout Law.”

She also praised the support from community volunteers who have donated their time, materials and work to the mask-making effort.

“Kourtney and I want to say thank you to all of our hardworking and exceedingly helpful neighbors,” she said. “Many of them have gone above and beyond our wildest expectations to not only support our health care workers by sewing masks, but also to support Kourtney’s efforts and help her grow her leadership skills.”

She also gave her thanks to the health care community and all essential workers “who are giving their all right now for the benefit of our society.”

Kourtney said the global medical and financial impacts of the coronavirus are difficult to deal.

“I think it’s important to note that helping other people seems to make everyone feel a little less secluded and helpless.”

Going forward, Kourtney said there are no plans of stopping the mask project, and she has organized a Facebook group page, “Masked Tigers,” to provide updates and information to continue the volunteer effort.

The group continues to collect protective equipment and fabric, ribbon, elastic and buttons to make masks, with donations of new, tight-weave cotton fabric and quarter-inch or smaller elastic being especially appreciated.

“I’m not sure how long this pandemic will last, but this project is ongoing, and I plan to continue making and delivering as many masks as I can! I’d definitely like to help in any way possible,” Kourtney wrote, thanking community members for their contributions and dedication.

“I’m very grateful for the opportunity to play a part in keeping health care workers safe. They definitely deserve it considering all of their hard work and selfless dedication.

“I think it’s important that people know that every little donation or moment of time spent can make a huge difference in other people’s lives.”

Kourtney Keim, a 10th grader at Northwestern Lehigh High School and member of Girl Scout Senior Troop 682, drops off the first donation of 52 masks and 144 boxes of Girl Scout Cookies to Lehigh Valley Health Network March 24. Keim organized a community volunteer effort to sew masks, and collect protective equipment for health care workers.PRESS PHOTOS COURTESY The KEIM FAMILY