An outreach to sew 900 isolation gowns for Grinnell Regional Medical Center in the fight against COVID-19 has expanded across a six-county region and continues growing, but the need for seamstresses remain.
Businesses, employees and others from across the area are stepping up, donating cash and goods, recruiting seamstresses and volunteering their time, all to make a difference in this pandemic.
It all started on March 31 when Jennifer Havens, CEO of UnityPoint Health – Grinnell Regional Medical Center (GRMC) asked Angelina Ahrens, director of development at GRMC, to help find fabric and supplies for volunteers to sew isolation gowns for hospital healthcare workers. It was being done in preparation for the hospital’s COVID-19 response.
Angelina, who happens to be the daughter of Jo Ahrens, owner of Three Sisters Fabrics in Montezuma, reached out to her mother for help in procuring fabric and supplies needed to make the gowns. This included 100 percent polyester fabric, ribbing, Velcro, elastic, double-wide bias tape, etc. Jo immediately reached out to her fabric suppliers to order as much as they had in stock.
“We needed enough fabric and supplies to sew a total of 900 gowns,” said Angelina. “Approximately, 2,000 yards of fabric was needed.”
At that same time, an effort to get the word out about the need for seamstresses began spreading across Facebook, through various organizations and by word of mouth.
Grinnell and Beyond
Sally Lang of Grinnell volunteered her time to coordinate all seamstresses in the Grinnell area and surrounding communities.
“She has a total of 42 seamstresses (herself included) and 14 runners (her golfing friends who drive to pick up and deliver fabric kits around the area),” noted Angelina.
Volunteers are from Grinnell, New Sharon, Victor, Newton, Toledo, Brooklyn, Malcom and Davenport.
Total Choice Shipping and Printing in Grinnell began printing and donating full-size gown patterns for anyone who wanted to sew. The full-size, durable plastic, re-usable gown patterns retail for $70 each. So far approximately 85 patterns have been donated.
Many individuals have donated to the project and most recently, Dave Arendt at People’s Savings Bank in Montezuma, also donated to the project.
Rachael Kinnick of the Grinnell Chamber of Commerce and Jacki Bolen, Montezuma mayor, and others have also been involved in recruiting volunteers, getting the word out and helping organize the outreach.
The Grinnell Walmart stepped up and offered to donate some fabric and supplies. When Angelina arrived at Walmart to pick up the donated items, she said an announcement went out over the speaker system asking associates if they would like to donate to the local hospital for supplies.
“I watched in amazement as employee after employee all come to the front to give cash from their own pockets,” said Angelina. “The store paid for almost $200 worth of fabric and supplies and the employees (probably 25 people) gave more than $650 out of their pockets toward the total donation of $877 in fabric and supplies! They were incredibly kind and thankful for our healthcare workers and really wanted to help. It was very moving to see their generosity and the impact it had on them.”
Angelina said the hospital was able to order some fabric from different places that had it, but it was becoming increasing limited to get the fabric and to get it shipped out in a reasonable amount of time.
“I had one order I placed that never came through and was cancelled,” she said. “Many more hospitals were looking for 100 percent polyester.”
Jo at Three Sisters came through for the project in a big way! She found a big supply of fabric and ordered more than 1,700 yards.
“We searched high and low to find fabric for the hospital,” said Jo Ahrens. “The company I found would have normally took two to three weeks to get an order ready, but they rushed it because of the need. The communities are all pulling together to do what we can to help our health care professionals.”
Kari Elbert and her husband, Dave, who reside at Lake Ponderosa, joined the outreach after Easter. Kari said she had seen a post on Facebook seeking experienced seamstresses and decided to reach out.
“I don’t sew but my mother is a fantastic seamstress and these gowns would be perfect for her,” noted Kari. “I called her and she committed to make 25 gowns so I emailed Sally Lang and she delivered everything my mother needed.”
Kari said during a Zoom Easter chat with her mother, she shared that it was going to take a bit longer than she thought.
“Dave and I told her that we would cut the patterns out for her in the kitchen while she sewed in the bedroom,” Kari said.
Kari said she and Dave had no idea how urgent the need was until she called a cousin who is a nurse at GRMC and she confirmed that this was a ‘need it now not whenever you can get around to it’ project.
“It truly was needed so we took home the rest of the bolts of fabric and cut the rest of the gowns for her and also asked some local ladies that were seamstresses to help cut and sew.”
Kari called Lang and asked if she wanted help to recruit more seamstresses and she said yes, saying that she had lost a couple seamstresses because their sewing machines quit working.
“I made a post on the Lake Ponderosa Facebook Page and by morning my phone was blowing up,” said Kari. “Over a four day period from April 15-19, we had secured 36 ready to fire up their sewing machines to help and 168 gowns were being made.”
That number has grown to 50 seamstresses recruited through Kari and others for a total of 92 seamstresses across the area. And according to Angelina, between her, Jo, Lang and Kari and the many volunteers, a system is now in place for delivering supplies and picking up finished gowns.
“Jo and Marg at Three Sisters cut fabric and put kits together and Sally picks up and distributes to her ever-growing group of volunteers while Kari’s husband, Dave, picks up and distributes to her ever-growing group of volunteers,” noted Angelina. “Jo has two local seamstresses contact her and they have sewn gowns. She brings me their finished gowns and I bring them to the hospital.”
“I want a shout out to Sue Cheney and Sally Johnston, both of Montezuma, who reached out to their friends and we are still getting referrals from them,” said Kari. “Bev Koger has been helping me on a daily basis, too.”
To date, a total of 257 gowns have been received in-house at the hospital and are currently being laundered and distributed to healthcare workers. The gowns are part of the workers PPE. They play a critical role in their safety.
Lang and her group have commitments of 450 gowns to be sewn with 160 completed and 290 in process when this story went to press.
GRMC has two employees on-site who are sewing gowns as well.
Gowns come in medium and large sizes and some have adorable prints with owls, pink flamingos and Hawaiian prints. There also royal blue (UnityPoint Health colors), navy, white, black and red.
Depending on the seamstress’s skill level, it takes about 20 minutes to cut a pattern and anywhere from one to two hours to sew a gown. They are fully washable.
“We’re incredibly grateful to our communities stepping up and helping out in so many ways,” said Angelina. “We couldn’t do this without them. Some people have called me to say they don’t sew, but they want to give donations to help buy materials or whatever is needed to address this pandemic. I am deeply thankful for our generous communities and their response to help support our local hospital.”
“It has been a privilege to be a part of this huge project,” said Cecily Unruh of Montezuma, who is volunteering her skills as a seamstress. “Such teamwork to show our appreciation of those in the medical field who go above and beyond the care for the sick. Many thanks to the organizers of this project who have spent hours of time and travel making bags of supplies, delivering and picking up completed gowns.”
“I get emotional thinking about it,” added Kari. “Seeing how supportive our community has been is so overwhelming in a great way. I just got a gown with the verse ‘Fear not, for I am with you always!’ WOW! Goes to show that we are not the only ones that are feeling this way. Plus, everyone knows someone that is working so hard every day and needs this protection.”
Kari said the need is still critical and immediate. “We want and need more seamstresses to help us reach our goal as soon as possible,” she said.
If you can sew or help in any way, text Kari at 515-771-2032 with your name and physical address and you will be added to the list.
Or you can reach out to the hospital for more information and to learn how to help at: https://www.unitypoint.org/grinnell/covid-19-help.aspx.