Scott County woman turns concern for sister into a production line

Mike Still • Mar 25, 2020 at 2:30 PM

FORT BLACKMORE — Mandy Barton Gibbs got her first inkling that something was wrong in the world in January during her sessions as an online English teacher for Chinese students.

Her second came when her sister, a nurse practitioner, told her that protective gear for doctors and nurses was getting scarce with the spread of novel coronavirus and the COVID-19 infection.

Gibbs said those things, along with a call from a friend in Wytheville asking if she could make some protective masks for acquaintances, got her started on an at-home production line.

“I’d seen it since January, when my students were staying at home instead of their families traveling during the Chinese New Year,” Gibbs said. “I knew it wasn’t normal, and I’d been worried about my students when their parents would come online at the end of each session. There is a universal mother look, and you could see it in their eyes that they were worried.”

Gibbs said many of her students, whom she has been teaching online for three years, had developed their English skills from learning individual letters to strong conversational and analytic skills.

“They were telling me about their lives and what was going on, and you could tell things were different there,” Gibbs said. “A kid is a kid, no matter where you are.”

As news of the novel coronavirus began building through February, Gibbs said it got closer to home.

“My sister said she was having to reuse the same mask because there wasn’t any personal protective equipment available for doctors and nurses where she worked, and a light bulb went off in my head,” Gibbs said. “Wendy Welch, who I knew from UVA Wise when I was a student there, had also called me about making some masks for people she knew working in nursing homes.”

Gibbs is also a crafter, and she credits her longtime stocking of craft supplies with giving her a boost for her project.

“I had plenty of elastic and quilting cotton on hand, and the Centers for Disease Control requires 100% polypropylene, not woven, for the mask liners,” Gibbs said. “I made it to the local fabric shops to get that before they ran out.”

Gibbs sewed sections of plant-tying wire into the mask for form-fitting nosepieces. The masks can be boiled and dried for several reuses, she said.

Gibbs said her experience with mask making has helped her appreciate how people who grew up in the Great Depression saved jars, old cans and other odds and ends.

“They couldn’t go out to stores for a lot of things, so they had to make do with what they had,” Gibbs said. “Now I understand why.”

Gibbs has sewn 100 masks and estimates she has enough material for 100 more, although she is still looking for more elastic.

“I had 500 yards of elastic and it’s gone, so my next challenge is to find elastic” Gibbs said. “Who thought my home craft studio would help save the world?”

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