Sewing volunteers repair 20,000-plus masks for Baptist

By , Daily Memphian Updated: April 07, 2020 1:57 PM CT | Published: April 06, 2020 4:00 PM CT

The plans changed quickly for Stephanie Lepone and Ginna Rauls.

They are thankful it turned out that way.

Tinkerers unite, turn out face shields by the hundreds

Just a few weeks earlier the two mothers who used to sew for their children were doing their best to create washable cloth masks that could be used to prevent the spread of COVID-19. That was the least they could do.

But little did they know that their modest efforts would quickly turn into a 20,000-plus-mask project that will provide Baptist Memorial Hospital-Memphis the necessary materials to help save lives.

“It just so happened that a few people crossed paths at the right time, and I can’t say enough wonderful things about what’s happened,” Lepone said. “The Lord works in mysterious ways, I guess, but we put it all together and made it work. It’s mind-blowing.”

The unexpected gift for the hospital started with a friendship between Lepone and Nick Lewis, who is the director of safety and environment for Baptist.

Lewis watched a feature on television about their efforts to make cloth masks and knew of another way they could help.

He connected Lepone with Joshua Roberts, another Baptist employee in the nursing department who had just made an incredible discovery. Inside of the hospital’s storage, it had roughly 29,000 older masks with one major malfunction: The elastic that held the materials in place wasn’t functional.

The bands on the back of the masks needed to be sewn back in place, and perhaps the volunteers would be able to help. But 29,000 masks were far too many for Lepone and Rauls to fix on their own, so they knew they needed a plan.

“This was a true partnership,” Lepone said. “I remember when they told us, Ginna said to me, '29,000 masks? Do you even realize how long it would take to get 29,000 masks ready?’ ”

Editor’s Note: The Daily Memphian is making our coronavirus coverage accessible to all readers — no subscription needed. Our journalists continue to work around the clock to provide you with the extensive coverage you need; if you can subscribe, please do

But using the relationships built within their churches — Second Presbyterian and St. Louis — Rauls and Lepone started to gather more and more volunteers that could help take on the massive number. The plan was to find “team leaders” to recruit volunteers to sew, and from top to bottom this “pyramid” of sewing volunteers grew larger and larger.

“I even called this my do-good, sewing volunteers pyramid scheme,” Lepone joked.

Spreadsheets were made. The number of boxes assigned to each sewer was set. They were ready for a project that could take four weeks.

Until another change happened.

“The elastic that Baptist ordered was supposed to come in a week ago (Monday), so the team members were going to pick up the materials that day and give it to their sewers to sew on Wednesday,” Rauls said. “Well, the elastic got delayed. So we ended up getting three extra days to wait, and the death of Tim Russell (a pastor at Second Presbyterian Church) happened on a Monday.

“We had already trained one of the people in his Sunday school to be a team leader. So, in his passing, people wanted to do something to honor him.”

By Friday, the sewing group quickly lined up 414 total volunteers, and a project that was going to be completed 6,000 masks at a time would be finished in just three days.

“It happened so fast,” Rauls said.

There was an estimated 30,000 masks (although Rauls predicts it was closer to 20,000), 857 boxes, 16,000 yards of elastic and more than 150 sewers who weren’t even needed.

Instructional videos helped to keep all of the sewers consistent with the way that each of the masks were refurbished, and there were requirements to keep all of the sewing areas sterile to ensure that none of the masks had a chance to become infected.

“It really was a true community effort,” Lepone said. “All of these volunteers were not with one organization. They came from all over.”

On Monday, April 6, boxes began arriving outside of Lepone’s home in Memphis from volunteers and by 1 p.m. she had already stacked several hundred. Tuesday Baptist is scheduled to pick the boxes up and transport them back to the hospital to be used for treating sick patients in waiting rooms.

“(It’s a lesson) about how amazing it is when there are discouraging circumstances and people can join together to make them encouraging. We’ve heard doctors in our Sunday school report when patients know someone hand-sewed masks for them, and even pulled fabric out of their closet, it’s seen as incredible.”


Baptist Memorial Hospital-Memphis COVID-19
Drew Hill

Drew Hill

Drew Hill covers the Memphis Grizzlies and is a top-10 APSE winner. He has worked throughout the South writing about college athletics before landing in Memphis.


Want to comment on our stories? Or read the comments of others? Join the conversation by subscribing now. Only subscribers can view or add comments. Our commenting policy can be viewed here