GFS school community made and donated more than 500 cloth masks to a local health center in Germantown.

by Michelle Sonsino

To reduce community-based transmission of COVID-19, the CDC recommends wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain. While this seems like a simple step, access to fitted, washable masks remain a barrier for many.

Germantown Friends School (GFS) students, families, faculty, staff, and friends joined together to support prevention efforts in the community by making and donating cloth face masks to a local health center. Health Center 9, managed by the City of Philadelphia, helps neighbors access care and reduce the spread of COVID-19 through testing and prevention. In addition to providing surgical masks at triage when patients first enter the center, the doctors and staff identified another need—reusable masks to send home with patients to keep the virus from spreading. As of now, GFS has donated 509 cloth masks for patients to take home.

In addition to providing services related to COVID-19, Health Center 9 continues to offer essential healthcare to all, including the uninsured and underinsured.

“As a full-service clinic that has a pharmacy, lab, gynecology and dental services, people are in the building for multiple reasons on a daily basis,” said Barbara Westerhaus, internal medicine primary care doctor and interim medical director of Health Center 9. “Many patients were entering without a mask and we only had enough to share with the symptomatic patients, even though up to 25% of people may be asymptomatic with COVID-19. We recognized that not all of our patients had access to cloth masks, which are recommended by the CDC, and we wondered what we could do to help solve this problem.”

Westerhaus’ patients face healthcare challenges and disparities regularly. Now, they face even greater risks. “Our patient population tends to have multiple medical problems and is predominantly African American, both facts which make their likelihood of a worse outcome from COVID-19 higher,” she explains.

Barbara’s husband, Andrew, a music teacher and student advisor at Germantown Friends School, just down the street from the center, heard his wife’s concerns and knew he could call upon his school community to help. GFS student leaders and Director of Community Engagement Kathy Paulmier helped spread the word through email and social media, and shared simple instructions to create masks by hand. Donations immediately started coming in—exceeding the health center’s expectations in just the first week.

“Our students, employees, and families are constantly asking what they can do to help others, a genuine care for all that has only heightened during this complex time,” said Dana Weeks, Head of School at Germantown Friends School. “I am proud that the GFS community took the time to make and donate masks, and I am also pleased that they educated one another, listened, and learned about the deeper roots of the issues and challenges at play.”

Student Amelia Otto, current sophomore at GFS, was pleased to use her longtime hobby for good.

“I have been learning to sew since I was eight and regularly sew clothing and other items,” she said. “When the pandemic hit, I was able to find a pattern for cloth masks and created masks for friends, family and those in need of protection.  I enjoy sewing and am happy that my skills can help others during this time.”

“We now have enough that we give a mask at the door to anyone who needs one,” Westerhaus said. “My hope is that people will be able to keep using them, wear them to the store, and on the bus. These amazing donations have made everyone who enters the center safer. We are so grateful to everyone who has donated.”

Michelle Sonsino is Director of Communications and Marketing at Germantown Friends School.

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