Virginia Cooperative Extension agents sewing masks

By Max Esterhuizen

virginia cooperative extensionWhen the news of medical mask shortages broke amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Virginia Cooperative Extension agents Terri Alt and Leigh Ann Hazelwood knew they needed to step up and be a force for good in their communities.

And, step up they did.

Since the in-person programming the two usually conduct has been temporarily postponed, Hazelwood, the 4-H youth development Extension agent in Patrick County, and Alt, unit coordinator and family consumer science Extension agent in the Patrick County Extension Office, are working to help keep essential personnel and government officials healthy by sewing medical masks.

Hazelwood saw that a friend who had a business that made hand-made dog leashes, collars, and dresses for young children had pivoted to making masks for emergency personnel. Hazelwood reached out to get the sewing pattern and immediately reached out to Alt to see if she would be willing to assist.

Hazelwood got an immediate and resounding “yes” to making masks for the emergency personnel and government officials.

They both went out to a craft supply store and bought the necessary materials to create masks on their sewing equipment. While not N95 masks, these masks do meet CDC guidelines of a tightly woven cotton, and, almost as important, reduces the ability and inclination to touch the face.

“I grabbed my 25-year-old sewing machine out of the basement, oiled it up a bit, and it’s plugging along,” Alt said. “Our jobs have changed with not being able to do programming. Neither of us thought that this would be something that we would be doing, but it fills an important need in our community.”

Across the state, Virginia Cooperative Extension has adapted to the COVID-19 pandemic. Agents are changing their in-person programming and creating new and compelling ways to reach people online and over the phone. Specialists and agents are also exploring ways in which they can help the community deal with the many new challenges COVID-19 presents.

“This is just one of the many great examples of how we are identifying the most pressing needs in our communities and stepping in to help in any way we can,” said Ed Jones, director of Extension. “It is what we have done for more than 100 years and will do for the next 100 – no matter what the issue.”

For Hazelwood, this is not only a valuable way to help those who are on the frontlines – it’s also a way to give back.

“For me, it gave me a little bit of control and power back in a situation where none of us have that,” Hazelwood said.

Over the last two weeks, Hazelwood and Alt have combined to make upward of 150 masks and are constantly improving their technique. They began production lines, sewing the elastic into the masks before pleating the material, to speed up the process.

“I went from being able to make three masks an hour to anywhere from 5-10 masks, depending on how well my sewing machine wants to work,” Hazelwood said.

Both Hazelwood and Alt will continue to make masks for those in their community until their sewing machines wear out or they run out of elastic.


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