An Alabama Public Radio news feature, which is part of APR effort to address the "news desert" along the state's Gulf coast. APR recruited and trained veteran print journalists in Mobile and Baldwin counties to join our news team to do radio stories from along the Gulf coast.
Mobile County remains Alabama’s top hotspot for the coronavirus. Local health officials are studying clusters of new cases, especially among people known as the 6-15ers, those are individuals who spent more than 15 minutes less than 6 feet from an infected COVID-19 patient. While this effort goes on, there is also a campaign to help first responders.
“My little brother and I would sit underneath it and press the pedals and say that this was our rocket ship to Mars. We’d just press the pedal and we were on our way to Mars,” said Catherine Drake as she sat behind her sewing machine.
Drake has been sewing since she was 7 years old. Although her grandmother’s sewing machine has been replaced with a newer one, the Mobilian is still transfixed by the skill that’s been passed down through her family for at least a century.
“When you listen to the news, so much is out of our control,” Drake said. “It almost seems impossible. But at least if you’re sewing projects such as masks or an isolation gown for a nursing home, you feel like you’re doing something.”
Drake is making cloth masks and isolation gowns for the Little Sisters of the Poor, a Catholic charity that helps Mobile’s impoverished elderly. She’s just one volunteer working to provide personal protective equipment, also known as PPEs.
Perhaps the leaders of this countywide effort is a group called the Krewe of Kindness. You normally hear about Mobile area krewes during Mardi Gras. This group is throwing surgical masks instead of doubloons.
Jenni Zimlich and her daughter, Delaney, are among the krewe’s founders, and for several years have been making pillowcases for the patients at USA Children’s and Women’s Hospital.
“I’m very fortunate, from this position, to have actually seen the best in our humanity, the best in our community,” said Kimberly Thompson-Yates, the hospital's program coordinator.
She put out the call for the krewe to help with the need for PPEs, and they did. To date, groups and individuals throughout Mobile and Baldwin counties, have delivered about 1,500 masks to USA Health System.
“They’re there for us, they’re supportive of our staff and our families year-round,” Thompson-Yates said. “That’s why you have these connections. As ugly as this situation and this time period have been, some very beautiful things have come out of it. And it will restore your faith in humanity.”
Zimlich and the Krewe of Kindness recently turned their needles and thread from making pillowcases to sewing colorful cloth masks, to help the hospital staff preserve their medical grade PPEs.
“Here are these people who have helped us in our medical situation, how can we help them in their time of need,” Zimlich said. “This is a way of using our skills to help them. I don’t know how to be a neurosurgeon but I do know how to sew.”
Zimlich's daughter Delaney was born with spina bifida, and was treated at USA Children’s and Women’s Hospital. It was that experience that prompted Jenni and several other parents to found the Krewe of Kindness to support community needs. To date, the Krewe and some neighbors and friends in south Mobile County have made and donated more than 500 masks.
“The cool thing about this idea of sewing and this call to action, the World War II feel-ing. My grandmother and my great-grandmother grew up in this area of Fowl River and when the men went off to war the women stayed home and sewed,” Zimlich said. “That was something they did. It’s kind of neat, it’s almost full circle coming back to that feel-ing of what can we do with our skills that we’ve learned to help others. And I think if you don’t use those skills, it’s sad. If you have it and you don’t use it.”
Sewing surgical masks during the COVID-19 pandemic reminds Drake her of family history. Her grandmother sewed stars on American flags in Pennsylvania. She also survived the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918.
“You look to somebody like that, look what she did,” she said. “I think of what her life might have been during her 1918 pandemic, she was not overloaded with 24-7 news coverage coming at her, she was baking bread for her family, she was making her own soap, she was sewing clothes. She probably had a little garden, if I know better. She was doing what she had to do.”
Zimlich said there’s therapeutic value in sewing as well, especially during a crisis that’s causing rampant anxiety in household and workplaces nationwide.
“Sewing has always been an important part of my life, it grounds me,” she said. “Even when I’m not doing it as a hobby or job, it’s just something I can focus on and it takes away all the clutter. I’m able just to focus on one thing. Not to mention it is a channel for your nervous energy, because no matter how calm you are, and telling yourself it isn’t getting to you, it is.”
“If I wasn’t doing the sewing, I might be in the kitchen baking a cake or eating something I don’t need to be eating,” Drake said, “so it is a more positive way to channel energy.”
When she worked at Providence Hospital in west Mobile, Drake said she heard of the “helper’s high.”
It's a feeling of joy and happiness that accompanies good deeds. She and Zimlich certainly feel it each time they make masks to protect first responders and others in the fight against COVID-19.