Mask mates

Mask mates made by Cindy Martin and her mother, Carol Stewart, from yarn and military buttons that once belonged to the late Benny Steward, shown sitting in the rocking chair on the left. The photo on the right was taken while Benny was in service. Photograph by Cindy Martin. Used with Permission.

By Katie Dunlap

Star Presbyterian Church, like many churches in Montgomery County, suspended worship services in March, in accordance with the governor’s Shelter in Place order. COVID-19 had just entered this area, and the church wanted to take care of themselves and their neighbors. Members were sad at having to cancel Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday services. These are two of the most momentous holidays in the Christian tradition.

Pastor Stamey reminded the members, “The building is not the church. The people are the church. While we are physically separated one from another, go out and be the church.” At first, the members were shocked, but they slowly learned to watch Pastor Stamey on Facebook and they developed a prayer circle to keep up with joys and concerns through Chat.

Then Wanda Sechrest had an idea. “If we are going to be the church, we need to care for those who are caring for us.” Kerry Hensley made necessary arrangements, and the church sent Subway sandwiches to the employees on duty at Montgomery Memorial Hospital. Kerry said, “We saw this as a way to give back to those who were risking their lives to care for our community. It was also a way to support a local business.”

Two weeks later, the church decided to send Subway sandwiches and individually wrapped desserts made by church members to the staff at Autumn Care. Again, Hensley made the arrangements. Talking to the administrator, Tina Billings, Hensley learned that the staff also needed protective masks and mask extenders, sometimes called mask mates.

Billings explained that Autumn Care has about 118 staff members and 101 residents. The facility has a method of laundering masks in-house, but it takes a lot of masks to ensure that residents and staff are protected at all times. Because Autumn Care is a COVID-19-free facility, the staff were allowed to wear non-medical grade masks.

Many staff work 12-hour shifts. Wearing a mask for this long often leads to sore ears. Mask mates are small strips knitted or crocheted with a large button sewn on each end. The elastic goes around the buttons rather than the person’s ears, reducing mask fatigue. For the buttons to be effective, they must be large to secure the elastic straps.

Star Presbyterian Church immediately posted a Facebook request for masks and mask mates. The community responded within 24 hours. Marilyn Phillips knitted 10 mask mates, and Katie Dunlap added buttons from her grandmother’s button box and sewed eight more masks. Kristina Shultz crocheted many mask mates and Cindy Martin created 30 using yarn that belonged to her late father, John Bentley (Benny) Stewart.

Martin and her mother, Carol Stewart, found large buttons in her mother’s button bottle. Carol sewed while Cindy continued to crochet. They even used the buttons that once graced Benny’s Air Force fatigues. Benny was an engineer during the Vietnam War. He was stationed at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro before being sent to Guam. There he serviced the B52 bombers that flew over Vietnam.

Cindy explained, “Daddy was all about helping others. If he had it, he'd give it; and if he didn't, he'd repair or make what you needed. I think he would be happy to know his yarn and his buttons went to help someone else!”

Star Presbyterian Church has sent an additional 20 masks and 10 mask mates to Autumn Care. If you are interested in helping with this project, knitting and crocheting patterns are available for free on the internet.