A visible mission against an invisible enemy

Fort Lauderdale’s First Presbyterian Church enlists an army of volunteers to make thousands of protective masks

by Tammy Warren | Presbyterian News Service

The COVID-19 Medical Mask Response Team, led by First Presbyterian Church of Fort Lauderdale, included several students who received community service hours for participating. (Contributed photo)

LOUISVLLE — The senior pastor’s phone rang at 9:15 p.m. It was Dr. Paul Greenman, a member of First Presbyterian Church of Fort Lauderdale and the Broward County Medical Association. Greenman made a plea for help during the COVID-19 pandemic — not for himself, but for thousands of other medical professionals and first responders in Broward County, Florida.

Would First Presbyterian-Fort Lauderdale lead a communitywide initiative to make high-quality, HEPA-grade cloth masks for superheroes on the frontline? Thousands of them?

“Absolutely,” said the Rev. Dr. Patrick Wrisley, the church’s senior pastor. Wrisley said he learned early on in ministry, as a church planter and associate pastor of congregations in Florida and Georgia, that when a church member shares a wild idea about a mission opportunity, it’s best to sit still and listen.

“The crazier the idea is, the more the Holy Spirit is in it,” he said.

In this case, Wrisley had no hesitation, particularly since this mission would be co-led by Greenman and Pam Hickson, the church’s college ministries team leader. He knew they would be unstoppable in meeting this huge challenge.

“We began to reach out to friends and families who reached out to friends and families,” Hickson said. The project began April 2, and in the first eight days there were 10 people cutting and four people sewing. As mask-making continued, more volunteers got on board, all wanting to do something to help during this time of crisis.

In less than six weeks, nearly 14,000 HEPA-grade masks were cut and sewn by more than 250 Broward County residents, with funding and supervision provided by First Presbyterian-Fort Lauderdale in partnership with the county’s medical association.

On May 12 — Florence Nightingale’s 200th birthday — nearly 500 COVID-19 HEPA masks were delivered to the superheroes at the central campus of Broward Health Medical Center. (Contributed photo)

One volunteer, Sal Fasulo, created two time-saving tools for the team: a loom for quickly cutting set lengths of elastic in large quantities and a puller to make pulling the elastic through each side of the mask much faster. Another volunteer, despite painful arthritis, made between 700 and 800 masks.

Volunteers traced and cut and ironed and sewed and stuffed the filters, added the elastic, performed quality control checks of every mask, counted and packaged the masks and delivered them to emergency rooms, surgical and COVID-19 units countywide, including the Cleveland Clinic, Broward General, Holy Cross and Imperial Point Medical Centers. Masks also were delivered to several police departments, fire stations and skilled nursing and assisted living facilities. The last mask delivery occurred just a few days ago during National Nurses Week and National Hospital Week.

“This is really important. I think this is even more important than all of us realized when we first started all of this,” said Terri McCrary Rogers, who volunteered with her husband and son. She said mask-making became what the family did in the evenings. Instead of pulling out a board game or a deck of cards during home quarantine, the Rogers family gathered around the dining room table and worked on masks.

“We just like feeling that we’re helping,” Terri said. The Rogers’ son, Keith, and other high school students working on the project also earned community service hours. “We’re a church and we don’t have our building to go to right now. You know, we can’t gather as a congregation in that way, but this has made me feel like I am still part of our congregation,” Keith said.

Captain Robinson, Fort Lauderdale Fire Rescue Department, picked up more than 260 HEPA masks to meet emergency need, as they await delivery of N95 masks. (Contributed photo)

“I understand my talents,” said Ross Bridger, a transporter on the team. “I can’t cut and I can’t sew, but I can drive.”

Javier Chia said he and members of a drug and alcohol recovery group he facilitates were able to cut 200 masks in three hours. “Tonight I was scheduled to run the evening group for outpatients, and I was praying while getting ready, as I usually do before running the group, to see what and how the Spirit wants me to lead that day,” Chia wrote in a Facebook post. “Tonight was something different. Instead of running group as normal, God convicted my spirit and said, ‘Ask the clients if they would like to give back?’ So, I left early, picked up tablecloths and arrived a little early. When all the clients arrived, I sat them down and explained what the church is doing — the mission — and asked if they would like to help. Just thinking about it brings tears to my eyes. We set up all the stations, cleaned and disinfected, handed out gloves. We had six tracers, six cutters and three counters. One of the clinicians came out and said it was beautiful to see everyone working together.”

Chia said it reminded him of a quote from the book “Love Does,” by Bob Goff: “Sometimes God uses broken people because (God) has more pieces to work with.”

“The beautiful aspect of this ministry is that at a time when the state was in lockdown due to the virus, it provided a multigenerational avenue for families to be a part of a missional purpose together,” Wrisley said. “Dad would cut, the children would stuff the filters and mom would sew everything together. Our young people home from college would be sitting with their grandparents working on masks for local medical professionals. It was such a beautiful thing to see. Other smaller Presbyterian churches with more limited resources came alongside us and joined in our ministry as well.”

Members of the Margate, Florida, Police Department model some of the 150 HEPA masks delivered to them. (Contributed photo)

Hickson, who learned to sew from her mom, home economics classes in middle school and her studies in fashion merchandising and design at Florida State University, said, “I love what we are teaching our children: not just how to sew, but how to help out our fellow human beings — an act of love.”

Before COVID-19, an assembly line project like this may have taken place in the church building or at least been assisted by small-group training. However, during pandemic social distancing, Hickson improvised by creating a COVID-19 Medical Mask Response Team. Patterns, sewing instructions and tutorials on cutting HEPA filters (from three kinds of vacuum cleaner bags) were shared online. The team also found fresh inspiration for the journey by encouraging one another through Facebook and update meetings held via Zoom.

The reusable HEPA masks providing extra protection for the Davie Fire Rescue Department in Davie, Florida, are made of 100% cotton and may be cleaned by hand-washing after first removing the HEPA filter and placing it in the sunshine to recharge. (Contributed photo)

When the Fort Lauderdale Fire Rescue experienced a delay in receiving the N95 masks they had ordered, the fire chief asked if the COVID-19 MMR Team could help, Hickson wrote on Facebook, “Because of you all, I was able to hand over 260 masks to meet their emergency need.”

Dr. Warren Sturman, an internal medicine and cardiology specialist at Holy Cross Hospital, emailed Hickson, “Your masks are all they are talking about at Holy Cross — the ICUs, floors, ER, surgical nurses. They are so excited to get them.”

The Rev. Nic Merchant, associate pastor at First Presbyterian Church-Fort Lauderdale, learned that medical professionals are making personal requests for the protective masks. In a “This One Thing” devotion, Merchant said, “They are asking for your masks by name. Each person who has stitched a stitch, cut elastic, who has cut and stuffed these filters; each person who has delivered supplies; each person who has been part of the process is included in that phrase: They are asking for your masks by name.”

The COVID-19 Unit at Holy Cross Hospital in Fort Lauderdale with cardiologist Dr. Warren Sturman (third from right). The nurses use the HEPA-filter masks daily, switching to an N95 mask when they enter the room of a COVID-confirmed patient. (Contributed photo)

“It’s evidence,” Merchant said, “of a people who are joining in with what God is doing right here in our midst in this time and through God’s people.”

A note from the volunteers on the COVID-19 Medical Mask Response Team, delivered with each bundle or box of masks, includes these encouraging words:

“These masks have been made with so much love and care, as the community stays home to help each of you do your job. Please know that our love and prayers go with you each day. We are an army of friends and neighbors that have come together to help you fight.”

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