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Volunteer Spotlight: Mask makers stitch together for students in the pandemic

  • From left, Kristen Reed, associate principal, Grantham Village School; Sydney Leggett, superintendent; Christine Conroy, Grantham School Board member and Susie Stitcher; and Susie Stitchers Donna Matson, Jane Deane Clark, and Linda Martin gather outside the school Monday after presenting 1,100 face masks for students, faculty, and staff of Grantham Village School, as well as Grantham students attending Lebanon middle and high schools. ( Fredrick Orkin photograph) Courtesy photograph—Courtesy photograph

  • Donna Matson makes masks at her sewing machine at her home in Grantham. Matson is one of 44 volunteers with the Susie Stitchers who made 1,100 for Grantham students, faculty and staff. (Courtesy photograph) Courtesy photograph—Courtesy photograph

  • The Susie Stitchers made these 1,100 masks for Grantham students, faculty and staff. (Courtesy photograph) Courtesy photograph

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 9/5/2020 9:50:06 PM
Modified: 9/5/2020 9:50:04 PM

As plans for reopening schools started forming, a clear need presented itself in the Upper Valley: The thousands of students, teachers and staff who would have to wear face masks.

Districts and volunteers throughout the Upper Valley began coordinating efforts and figuring out how many masks and what sizes were needed. The Upper Valley Mask Makers crafted thousands of masks for districts and students throughout the region, in addition to other institutions. Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center has received more than 23,000 handmade masks from volunteers since putting out the call in March, according to spokeswoman Audra Burns.

One such school and volunteer partnership emerged between the Grantham-based Susie Stitchers — the Susies for short — and the Grantham Village School.

Last Monday, members of the Susie Stitchers delivered 1,100 masks for students, teachers and staff at the K-6 school and older students who attend middle and high school in Lebanon. Teachers and other staff members came outside to applaud them.

“It gave people in the group a feeling of purpose,” Linda Martin said.

Two identical masks were given to each recipient. That way, each student will have masks they can identify solely as their own, and teachers can more easily keep track of who’s who, volunteer Donna Matson said. It took about a month to make all 1,100 masks.

“I think people got the most joy out of the preschool and early elementary school masks because you could use those fun fabrics you wouldn’t use for adults,” she said, citing patterns that featured Dr. Seuss characters and spaceships, among others. “It’s been wonderful to see them all come in.”

The Susies formed in mid-March in response to a request from Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center and other organizations for handmade masks.

The name came from a conversation between the group’s founders, coordinator Jane Deane Clark, Ruthann Eastman, Matson, Martin and Jane Verdrager. Clark noted that making masks was similar to rolling bandages for use during the Civil War.

“Someone along the line said, ‘This is Rosie the Riveter in World War II,’ ” Clark recalled. They initially thought to name the group the Susie Sewers (pronounced “so-ers”), “but since ‘sewer’ can also be pronounced also as ‘sewer’ (soo-er) we decided we should be the Susie Stitchers.”

Since then, more than 40 volunteers have made around 5,000 masks for Grantham residents, organizations, businesses and town employees, in addition to the masks made for the school.

“There’s some people in the group who don’t sew. Some people washed fabric, some people just cut fabric for mask kits and some people did sewing,” Martin said. “It was kind of whatever you were able to do. Some people shopped for fabric.”

Many of the volunteers are quilters and were able to dip into their fabric stashes for material.

“In the beginning, supplies were hard to come by,” said Rose Foley, citing a shortage of elastic. She worked on putting together mask kits for people to sew up in addition to making masks on her own. “It gave me something useful to do.”

In the beginning, Eastman’s garage served as a spot for people to pick up and drop off mask kits and masks. Others brought by mask-making supplies to donate.

“People heard that we needed things and that’s how things kept coming in,” Eastman said.

At one point, Eastman taught a volunteer how to use a fabric rotary cutter through her window.

“The whole thing was like setting up a brand new business,” Clark said. Volunteers how to figure out how to distribute supplies, check the masks for quality, make deliveries and other tasks all without really interacting face to face. “The teamwork was just amazing.”

While the group made all the masks for free, they accepted monetary donations. The Susies’ have since given $4,000 to area nonprofit organizations.

“Because we had enough money we could give back to our community in another way,” Eastman said. “It snowballed. It’s wonderful.”

In a time when it felt like there was little people could do to help during the COVID-19 pandemic, making masks gave volunteers an outlet.

“If we’re making these masks, maybe we’re doing a little bit to help protect those first-line workers,” Matson said.

The Susie Stitchers still have about 300 masks available for those who need them.

“I feel like we’re well-prepared if there is an uptick and then we can ask if people want to get back involved.” Matson said.

Last Tuesday, members of the Susies gathered on Zoom to meet each other and celebrate their efforts. Two of the volunteers discovered they had been college classmates.

“We found out we had connections among ourselves that we hadn’t known,” Clark said.

And now they have one more thing that connects them.

Liz Sauchelli can be reached at or 603-727-3221.

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