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Coming together at the seams

Jennifer Oberg is a mask superhero

Jennifer Oberg poses in her Makawao studio. She launched the Maui Face Mask Project and the Sewing Hui of Maui to make face masks to be provided to health care workers, school personnel and others at no cost. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Behind COVID-19’s very dark clouds, there are silver linings.

The Maui Face Mask Project is one of them.

It was a true labor of love: Over the course of eight weeks, nearly 200 volunteers from all walks of life came together to produce 10,000 medical-grade masks for Maui’s health care professionals, first responders and other critical personnel on the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis.

Jennifer Oberg, who owns a dressmaking and design studio in Makawao, is the founder and director of the Maui Face Mask Project. Prior to the pandemic, she never imagined she’d add face masks to her sewing repertoire. But when COVID-19 became a frightening new reality in March, face masks were suddenly top of mind. And not the cloth variety. After reading national news stories about Mainland health care workers scrambling for N95 masks and other personal protective equipment, she set her sights on making medical-grade masks to fill a possible shortage on Maui.

Oberg teamed up with Russell Van Dyken, who was working on designing a medical-grade mask to protect those who faced the greatest risk of exposure to COVID-19. Among those he sought to keep safe: his wife, Irminne, a Hawaii Permanente Medical Group surgeon.

On March 20, Van Dyken brought a flat-fold N95 mask and some materials to Oberg’s studio. The pair dissected the mask, and after closely examining its multilayered composition, created prototypes to be tested at Kaiser Permanente’s Maui Lani clinic.

After successful fit tests at the clinic, and with input from Dr. Van Dyken and other health care professionals, Oberg and Van Dyken had a viable prototype. Modeled after a flat-fold N95, their dual-filter face masks have four layers: a surgical gown or sterilization wrap outer layer; two filter layers; and a paper rag for the fourth, innermost layer. The mask also has a fitted nose piece and elastic securing straps.

As for raising money to cover the cost of making the masks (about $2 apiece) and recruiting people to help produce them, both happened practically overnight. Donations started pouring in right away and volunteers signed up by the dozens.

Production began on March 25 on the Seabury Hall campus, and by May 15, the group had reached their goal of 10,000 masks.

The masks were delivered to staff in Maui Memorial Medical Center’s emergency room, COVID-19 units, and admissions, dialysis, radiology, respiratory therapy, endoscopy and labor and delivery units. Masks were also donated to Bayada Home Health Care, CareResource Hawaii, Hale Mahaolu, Kaiser Permanente Home Health, LifeSave KuPono (an emergency air medical transport company), Malama I Ke Ola Health Center and Maui Lani Physicians and Surgeons, as well as dental hygienists, doulas, Hana-based medical professionals and first responders, optometrists, pediatricians, physical therapists and surgeons.

It was mission accomplished, but many of the volunteers weren’t ready to put away their sewing machines just yet.

Not long after, The Sewing Hui of Maui made its debut. Now 50-plus members strong and led by Oberg, the team of volunteer sewists works on a variety of projects for health care providers, schools and community organizations. So far, they’ve donated nearly 6,000 masks to local schools and organizations. And that’s just the beginning. If any organization needs masks or other sewn items, Oberg said, “We are here to help. We are always looking for new projects.” The Sewing Hui of Maui is currently in the process of becoming a 501(c)(3) nonprofit.

She may be the founder and director of the Maui Face Mask Project, but Oberg says the volunteers and donors are the heart and soul of the effort.

“While I am honored to have been nominated for this (People Who Made a Difference) award, I must accept it on behalf of all the honorable people who made this life-changing project happen for Maui,” Oberg said. “Their purity of heart and selfless, unconditional love has shown the best potential we humans can aspire to.”

To learn more about the Maui Face Mask Project or to view a list of the many volunteers and donors who contributed to the eight-week-long effort, visit www.mauifacemaskproject.com. For more information about The Sewing Hui of Maui or to inquire about donor or volunteer opportunities, visit www.facebook.com/thesewinghui/ or email thesewinghui@gmail.com.

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