Editor’s note: This is the latest installment in an occasional series called Maine Acts of Kindness, highlighting volunteer and philanthropic efforts during the pandemic.

Susan Franck of Gorham, a retired home economics and health teacher, has made nearly 200 face masks – most of them benefiting hospice workers in central Maine. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

A month ago, Susan Franck hadn’t heard of personal protective equipment. But then a friend who is a registered nurse told her about the shortage of face masks and other PPE facing many health care professionals.

Franck, 65, who spent 40 years as a home economics and health teacher before retiring in 2016, knew she could help and got to work. By early this week, she had made 181 face masks – with 130 delivered to a home health and hospice agency in central Maine where her friend works. Others have gone to friends and family.

“I told her, ‘You can learn to do just about anything (by watching videos) on YouTube. I’ll get back to you.’ And within 48 hours I made my first mask,” Franck said.

Franck, who lives in Gorham with her husband of 42 years, stresses that her masks are not medical-grade quality, but they are well constructed and washable. And she did her research before putting her quilting skills and ample stock of scrap fabric to use. After making 30 or so based on a model she’d seen online from a quilter and hospital employee in Cincinnati, Franck said she “did some engineering on my own,” to make sure her masks were sturdy enough to go through the wash.

She uses two separate pieces of cotton or cotton-blend cloth for a front and back, with a compartment gap in between where a disposable filtration system can be inserted. For adult-sized masks, Franck has added a metal nose clamp by straightening a paper clip and sewing that into place.

Franck also includes a piece of MERV 13 high-performance air filter. Franck includes a statement from the manufacturer that the MERV 13 does not include fiberglass but has not been tested for breathing purposes. If a person wants to use the filter with her masks, they can. Or, they can remove them. Inserting a coffee filter or two is also an option.

“I worry that they’re not going to be effective, particularly for those on the front line, and I’m a little concerned about the filter and have to leave that up to them,” Franck said. “People can find other ways. I don’t have to find all the ways, I just have to get the ball rolling.”

“I make them, I wash them, I wash them, I dry them, then I scrub the heck out of my hands and then quickly get them in a zip-locked bag,” she said.

Susan Franck wears one of the colorful masks she has been making at her home in Gorham. Franck, a retired teacher, has made nearly 200 cloth masks for hospice workers and friends. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Growing up on a chicken farm in Sydney that at its peak had 40,000 chickens, Franck said she and her four sisters were well versed in doing chores and helping neighbors.

“From a very young age, these were expectations, that you put others before yourself,” Franck said. “When you know you can do it, you just step in and do the best that you can.”

Franck is a long-time member of the Westbrook Women’s Club, an altruistic organization celebrating its 100th year of service. As a teacher, she worked in the Westbrook, South Portland and Bonny Eagle school systems at the middle and high school levels.

“She is probably the hardest-working, most down-to-earth person I have ever known,” said Kathleen Tremblay, who met Franck when they worked together at South Portland High. “She is what you would call a true Mainer. She knows the meaning of community, in that old-fashioned sense. She is just one of those people, if she’s in your life, you’re happy she’s in your life.”

CRAFTS SCHOOL SWITCHES GEARS

Modern technology and DIY spirit have combined across the state to produce plastic face shields to help protect health care workers, first responders and other essential workers like grocery store clerks.

Some of the 181 face masks made by Susan Franck of Gorham. Courtesy Susan Franck

The Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Deer Isle was supposed to be celebrating its 70th year of operation this summer. Instead, the pandemic forced cancellation of its renowned artist-in-residence workshops, as well as scheduled community outreach programs.

But Haystack recognized its Fab Lab (short for fabrication laboratory) had tools available for the greater good, especially after local resident Jill Day of Brooksville came to Haystack and asked to use its laser cutter to cut plastic shields.

Haystack Executive Director Paul Sacaridiz said that after helping Day, he and his staff realized Haystack had “the resources, equipment and the people,” to ramp up production and support its local community in a meaningful way. Using its own 3D printers to make the headband and food-grade polyester film the laser cutter cuts into plastic shields, Haystack’s team has made 500 face shields in two weeks. All the shields Haystack produces will be donated free of charge. About 300 have been delivered thus far to Northern Light Blue Hill Hospital, the ambulance team on Deer Isle and a local nursing home.

“I wish this service wasn’t so necessary and I wish the people receiving the shields weren’t so grateful,” Sacaridiz said. “But they are grateful. The people at the hospital are telling us they’re very low on supplies. The ambulance drivers, our EMTs, say they can’t get them.”

James Rutter, Haystack’s Fab Lab coordinator, worked with a doctor from Northern Light Blue Hill to identify a good design.

“I think we could produce 500 a week. Each 3D printer can produce about 28-30 headbands per day,” Rutter said. “So far the feedback we’ve gotten is the product works, it works well. Obviously it’s not like this thing is coming off (a) manufacturing line. It’s got a look and feel like it’s a DIY.”

Rutter has been in contact with other fab labs and community makerspaces in Maine, including Engine in Biddeford and Open Bench in Portland, in an effort to coordinate a statewide effort.

“It’s been really exciting just to be able to be a part of that and help out locally and there’s this mass mobilization of these community grassroots efforts,” Rutter said.

Bowdoin College and the University of Southern Maine have also used their 3D printing capabilities to produce face shields. Private companies like Biddeford manufacturer Thermoformed Plastics of New England have shifted production gears to make the shields.

“This response by the DIY and makers’ community is pretty amazing,” said Tammy Ackerman, co-founder and executive director at Engine.

VOLUNTEERS TRANSCRIBE HISTORY

The Kennebunkport Historical Society saw Maine’s stay-at-home order as an opportunity.

Sharon Cummins, the organization’s archivist, put out a call for virtual volunteers willing to transcribe handwritten records and notes. Currently 14 “virtual volunteers,” as the historical society calls them, are reading scanned copies of the notes and creating digital transcriptions.

“We’ve been digitizing with help from the Maine Historical Society but these are kind of our own notes, things we’ve been putting together since the 1950s,” said Kirsten Camp, executive administrator of the Kennebunkport Historical Society. “These are notes about homes in town, often hard to read, written in pencil. They were always going to need to be transcribed but that was never really on the horizon.”

The goal is to get the information online where it can be easily accessed. Camp says she has plenty of information to keep the volunteers busy, no matter how long the states’ stay-at-home order lasts.

“I have about 25 of these books and each book is a 2-inch, three-ring binder, so, yes, we could definitely go a little longer. And I think people will continue to do it after the stay-at-home order is lifted. I think they’ve enjoyed doing it.”

Are there folks in your community going out of their way to help others during the virus outbreak? If so, please send details about their efforts to [email protected]

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