In thinking about how to prepare for the fall semester — a semester that would happen during a pandemic — Mike Jones, vice president for communications and marketing at the University of Lynchburg, had a lot of things to consider.
One of them was face masks. He and a committee planning for the upcoming semester knew the masks would be a vital part of keeping everybody — students, faculty, and staff — safe and healthy this fall.
But there was one teensy hitch: They needed about 10,000 of them, two for everybody on campus.
Seeing how people all over the country were sewing masks for family members and front-line health care workers, Jones thought maybe folks at Lynchburg would make masks for each other. “It seemed far-fetched to think that we could come up with 10,000 by August, but when I shared my crazy idea, everyone embraced it,” he said.
The first people Jones approached about making this happen were Dr. Price Blair, a physical therapy professor who sews bow ties in his spare time and was already making masks for people in the community, and Dr. Alison Morrison-Shetlar, the University’s president-elect.
Blair and Morrison-Shetlar, who has been a quilter and fabric artist for 30 years, immediately jumped onboard.
“It was Mike’s idea to get Price and me as the faces of an initiative to make 10,000 masks for our community,” Morrison-Shetlar said. “Also, we are both very community-minded and thought this might be a good way to introduce me to the community at large.”
An email was sent to the University community on June 9, seeking “voluntailors,” along with donations and volunteers to help purchase, cut, and ship fabric. Blair and Morrison-Shetlar made videos demonstrating how to make a simple mask.
A Facebook group, christened “Sewcial Hornets” by Morrison-Shetlar, was created for the effort. It wasn’t long before its membership — alumni, faculty, staff, students, and friends of Lynchburg — had reached 350 members. Morrison-Shetlar’s mother-in-law in Kansas and sister in the United Kingdom pitched in, too.
By early July, more than 7,000 masks had been pledged and over 1,200 delivered to campus.
“I’m so pleased — and relieved — to see how well this has been received,” Jones said. “This is what our community is all about. Everyone is stepping up to help bring our students, faculty, and staff back to campus safely.”
Monica Chisom’s freshman year on campus had been cut short by COVID-19, but in just a few months she’d grown to love the Lynchburg community. When she heard about Sewcial Hornets and the mask-making project, she was anxious to get involved.
“Being a first-year student amid the pandemic was something I never expected, especially as a music education major with 10 classes each semester,” Chisom said. “I knew I was unable to help as much around campus as I would have liked, so I jumped at the opportunity to join this project.”
Chisom, who learned to sew in high school home ec, has made about 75 masks so far. She hopes to make 200 total before the Aug. 1 deadline. “To see the Lynchburg community, both near and far, come together like this is wonderful,” she said. “The environment … is what drew me here in the first place.
“I truly miss seeing the friendly, smiling faces of my peers and professors on campus. I may not have had a chance to see what a full academic year is like at Lynchburg, but the sense of community brings me hope that we will get through this together. I can’t wait to see everyone’s faces — behind masks — as I join them on campus in August.”
Courtney Creasy Pate ’97, a Lynchburg native who describes herself as a “second-generation Hornet,” started sewing masks for friends, family, and health care workers at the start of the pandemic. When Sewcial Hornets launched, Pate joined the effort.
“Making these masks has given me a chance to connect with so many people I wouldn’t normally have met,” she said. “I’ve had people tell me that they were afraid they’d lose their job because they didn’t have a properly fitting mask.
“I’ve worked to make custom masks for people with a variety of special needs, and it makes me happy to know that such a small act can bring a little relief to someone’s life. I hope these masks can bring the same level of comfort and protection to the University of Lynchburg students and my hometown.”
Julia Timmons, director of the Center for Accessibility and Disability Resources, wanted to add some school spirit to some of the nearly 400 — yes, 400! — masks she’ll have made before school starts in August.
In keeping with the campus tradition to wear red on Fridays, she found an online source for red batik fabric, and with some help from Mike Bonnette, vice president for advancement, she purchased some black fabric at a local quilting shop.
Thinking about her coworkers and others in the community, Timmons started making masks early in the pandemic. She tried out different patterns and started making them with adjustable straps, thanks to a tip she saw on Facebook. “I wanted to do something to make a difference and also have some control over things,” she said.
Initially, Timmons asked those who received her masks to make a donation to Lynchburg Cares, a fund that provides financial assistance to members of the campus community. When she heard about Sewcial Hornets, she immediately got involved.
“[I wanted] to give back to the University family, to do something to help and make a little difference,” she said. “I can’t wait to see the masks on folks on campus, with all the colors and variety of patterns.”
Holly Marie Venhorst Jacks ’00 had used her sewing machine only once before the pandemic. “I didn’t even know how to thread it. It was slow-going in the beginning,” she said.
Since getting the hang of it, however, Jacks has made about 600 masks. She donated 100 or so to the University and others were distributed to Lynchburg-area nonprofits. “It makes me feel like I’m doing something to help,” she said. “It was a little scary to take that first step, to try to learn how to make them, and how to sew in general, but I’m so glad I did.”
Jan Sigler ’65, stewardship coordinator in the Office of Advancement, said it’s heartwarming to see people dust off their sewing machines, and even learn to sew altogether, to make masks for her alma mater.
“It’s really amazing to see the response from a diverse group, all connected in some way to the University of Lynchburg,” she said. “It really has caught on. Having our president-elect and a talented professor serve as demonstrators of how to make a simple mask has provided wonderful energy and spirit.”
Lori Elholm, a dining services supervisor who calls herself the “lunch lady,” pledged to make 100 masks for Sewcial Hornets, but by the end of June she’d made about twice that many. Asked about that, she’ll tell you it’s just how the Lynchburg family rolls.
“I feel like, when somebody is in a crisis, everyone chips in,” she said. “One of our faculty had a house that caught on fire [and people] gave Walmart gift cards. My son fell last year and everyone helped out. They don’t even think about it; it just happens.
“It’s the same with the mask thing. I got the email to join and thought, ‘Oh, I can do that. I’m not a great sewer, but I can do it.’ … It’s a family. You don’t leave family hanging. You help them out.”
Cindy Ferguson, who’s managing the project with alumni director Heather Garnett, agrees, saying she’s never seen anything like it at Lynchburg.
“I don’t remember pulling our community together in this way,” Ferguson, director of community engagement and Bonner Leaders, said. “It shows how giving our community is, for everyone to pull together in so many different ways. It’s like family.”