Research center masks.jpg

It began with a request from a friend who owns a health food store.

Then another – a restaurant owner concerned about her employees serving customers curbside.

Still more – school nurses, a friend working at a children’s hospital, another living in New York, a neighbor whose father is battling cancer.

No matter the request for a fabric face mask, the answer for Andrea Stewart, lead environmental engineer for the Combat Capabilities Development Command Aviation & Missile Center, is always yes.

“Every mask is free and I will not say no to anyone. The answer is yes,” she said. “This is a time when every yes is a ‘best yes’ and sewing is my way to step up for my community.”

When the coronavirus arrived in the United States and the need for personal protective equipment became evident, Stewart started sewing, devoting her free time to creating fabric masks for people on the frontlines. The requests soon came flooding in.

Stewart’s new normal heavily features sewing to help fulfill the community’s need. She’s up at 5 a.m. to fit in a few hours of sewing before telework and homeschooling her kids, and once her family time is complete in the evening, she’s back at it. Weekends are spent sewing eight to 10 hours a day.

“A friend said that we are saving lives with a needle and thread, but I’m not on the frontlines. I’m just behind a machine,” Stewart said. “I just look at it as bringing a little welcome relief and positivity to my community.”

To date she’s sewn some 300 masks – each prayed over and “made with love.”

“Andrea is such a great example of how our community comes together during a crisis,” Evelyn Colster, friend and fellow AvMC employee, said. “Her act of kindness will have a great impact for those serving on the frontlines.” 

The effort has not been without challenges. Stewart had recently donated all her fabric to a local church, and elastic was hard to come by. She asked for donations and her porch filled up with supplies. The same thing happened when the hospital came to her in need of 2,500 masks. Knowing she couldn’t do it all by herself, Stewart pledged 250, and enlisted the help of fellow sewers.

“My community has really stepped up for me and I want to step up for them,” she said. “I’m proud to be working on this initiative with my other sewing friends.”

Although people have offered to pay her for her efforts, Stewart, who helps ensure the safety of the workforce at AvMC, has remained steadfast in her commitment to providing the masks at no cost. It’s a charity instilled in her by her grandmother, Kazu Kurihara Vaughan, a master seamstress who served her small town of Rogersville through sewing.

  “We all deserve to have the necessities in life to allow us to live with a little less fear,” Stewart said. “I teach safety and environmental training to our workforce, and one thing I am required by OSHA to teach is that every employee has the right to understand what they are working with, and that they should be provided with the proper PPE. That’s great in the workplace, but what about in the real world, outside the workplace? We all deserve to have PPE.”

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