For seven years, Victoria Fleischer has delighted in teaching sewing lessons in Columbia. Each day girls ranging in age from 8 to 14 have gathered in her home studio to learn basic sewing skills and enjoy one another’s company. Victoria also teaches adults to sew at her business, Sewing with Bella Lucca.
Sadly, this business was one of the thousands in our community impacted by the coronavirus. To prevent possible exposure to the virus, all classes had to be canceled. Within days, Victoria moved from personal classes to offering take-home projects for students to do on their own.
But fortuitously a need arose, and Victoria was asked to go to work using her sewing skills. With Biosmart hospital grade material manufactured and donated by Milliken, Velcro donated by 3M, and a medical gown as a template to create a pattern, Victoria went to work. Within a few hours, she had recreated a medical gown. Knowing of the tremendous need for protective supplies, she enlisted the volunteer services of other Midlands sewers and seamstresses who responded generously to the call for help. While these gowns are not intended to be used on the front lines in hospital ICU and critical care units, these gowns do meet the needs for other medical community members who need extra protection during the COVID-19 outbreak.
Allison McLendon also figured out a way to help. “I reached out to a friend, whose husband is a doctor at Prisma Children’s Hospital, to see if she knew of any needs. There were needs for patient masks in the oncology department.” Before she knew it, Allison was swept up in a tide of requests for masks. She created a Facebook page that connected her with other seamstresses and included a request form for masks. By combining forces with a host of other volunteers, including Melisa McLeod, Bhavna Vasudeva, and Kim Counts, along with the volunteer coordination skills of Julia Cagle, an abundance of donated material was received to make masks. “This was such a team effort,” says Allison. “And most of us had never even met.”
Within a short time, volunteers had made and donated 3,000 masks to Prisma Health, Providence Hospital, South Carolina Oncology Associates, The Columbia Free Medical Clinic, urgent care facilities, local doctors’ offices, and others. While Allison is quick to point out these masks are not N-95 masks, which are desperately needed to treat COVID-19 patients, these masks do meet a need in the community. In fact, a “Wash Before Use!” disclaimer form is included with each of the masks since they are not officially issued PPE – personal protective equipment.
“I am so encouraged to see how people in this community have come together,” Allison says. “Making these masks has kept me from letting fear grip me. It pulls at my heart to see donations come from people who may lose their businesses, everything. I am leaning on my faith. None of this is possible without Him.”
Karen Johnson of Columbia has also been hard at work, mobilizing seamstresses to make masks for personal protection. She has been especially busy putting together free kits for seamstresses, also currently referred to as sewists, to assemble. “The new emergency I am working on is to collect large bedding sheets, or 3 to 4 yards of new material, to make isolation gowns,” Karen says. “The local hospitals really need them. There is a group in Columbia making them, and I am just a collector of items to pass on to them.”
And Brackish Bowties, co-founded by Columbia native Ben Ross, has also mobilized professional seamstresses to retool production and produce medical masks. Using both profits and donations, they are producing desperately needed N-95 face masks for The Medical University of South Carolina.
The ingenuity of the Midlands is not limited to its seamstresses. At Heathwood Hall Episcopal School, computer science teacher Tom Simpson has used his skills in the school’s Makerspace to 3-D print the much sought-after N-95 surgical masks that have been in short supply. The masks were delivered to healthcare providers in the Midlands by Heathwood parent Margaret Clarkson.
Meanwhile, Nephron Pharmaceuticals Corporation CEO and Owner Lou Kennedy again demonstrated her extraordinary generosity in the Midlands. In mid-March, Nephron was able to receive U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval to produce hand sanitizer. They went to work, and within a week, Nephron donated 50 liters of this much needed sanitizer to the William Jennings Bryan Dorn Medical Center. Lou says, “Our veterans and their families have sacrificed for us, and we could not be prouder to lend them a hand during this difficult time.” She explains that Nephron also increased its production of respiratory medications. “Nephron employees are on the front lines of the response to COVID-19. We are going to keep working around the clock to deliver lifesaving respiratory medications across the country.”
In March, Prisma Health introduced VESper™, a unique ventilator expansion device that allows a single ventilator to support up to four patients during times of acute equipment shortages such as the COVID-19 pandemic. A Prisma Health Emergency Medicine physician realized the opportunity of using a single machine to breathe for multiple patients. She worked collaboratively with her husband, a software engineer, and with a Prisma Health pulmonary critical care physician to develop specifications for the device.
Produced using 3D printing technology, the device can be developed with material already in use for medical devices and produced at minimal cost. It was fast-tracked through the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s emergency use authorization process, and is awaiting patient field testing results.
USC’s College of Engineering and Computing also announced that faculty and students were assembling a production and manufacturing line to create 3D printed face shields for hospitals.
For many Columbia residents, daily food security was an issue prior to COVID-19’s disruption, and the virus only makes this problem worse. The United Way of the Midlands responded by creating the COVID-19 Response Fund as an “opportunity to help Midlands residents meet basic needs including food, shelter, and rent/utility assistance due to lost wages related to COVID-19.”
Although no longer able to serve food personally at Transitions Homeless Center, Eastminster Presbyterian Church volunteers and others continue to provide food for the 200 residents. The Junior League of Columbia responded by donating $7,000 over two weeks in March and encouraging members to give generously, supporting Harvest Hope Food Bank to stock its shelves and Senior Resources for the Meals on Wheels program. It also helped pay for the installation of Wi-Fi for the tenants of St. Lawrence Place and The Family Shelters so that children housed in those facilities can participate in e-learning while schools are closed. The league also purchased three months of diapers for the Power in Changing diaper bank.
Like all institutions of learning, from preschools to higher education, the University of South Carolina has faced enormous challenges in converting its entire teaching model across its eight campuses to online instruction within a matter of weeks. Administrators, faculty, staff, and students have all worked together to make this transition. Sadly, some students could not leave campus due to financial, health, or other situations, and the students who tested positive for the virus faced other challenges to be quarantined and fed. The university has met the challenge and instituted the USC COVID Emergency Relief Fund to assist the neediest of its students who lack food or the technology tools to continue their education as it is now offered.
June and David Smith have worked for years with international students and visiting scholars as part of The Navigators. They have opened their home and hearts to countless individuals, several of whom now find themselves stranded and thousands of miles from home. Since COVID-19 has made meeting in person no longer possible, they have been meeting with students via Skype and Zoom.
“These tools open up even more options to continue connections after the students return to their countries and help us all look beyond this time,” says June.
How we love those rites of spring. But Midlands residents are missing golf tournaments, baseball games, proms, graduations, and weddings. What does one do when weddings are canceled due to pandemic? Cricket Newman of Cricket Newman Designs of Columbia refunded or reapplied clients’ money for the canceled events. But then what? Let gorgeous flowers that had been preordered go to waste in such trying times? Cricket says she thought of the elderly who could not have visitors in local nursing homes and of her friends at home with young children and no school. An idea began to take root. How could kids participate and the elderly receive the gift of nature’s beauty? Project Share a Smile was the answer.
Share a Smile kits, prepared with gloved hands, were placed in front of The Stores at Cricket Newman Designs for pickup. Kids were asked to decorate them and return them two days later to be filled with bright flowers by Cricket’s staff for delivery to local elder care facilities. What a joy to see the creatively designed containers returned. Smiles were guaranteed.
Cricket says, “Sadly, the events for which these flowers were ordered could not take place, but hopefully they brought joy to the recipients and planted the seeds of sharing in young hearts.”
Indeed, neighbors are helping neighbors as never before. Karen Brosius and Willson Powell provided about five dozen boxes of all shapes and sizes to a neighbor who was moving and was overwhelmed by her inability to secure boxes in the midst of the outbreak.
We must recognize that the loss of routines, dreams, and daily connections hurts deeply. Grandchildren are being born in neighboring states, but flying is risky. Lost ones have died, but services and funerals have been postponed indefinitely. Critically ill relatives and those in nursing homes cannot be visited.
Long anticipated trips, and mission trips alike, have been canceled. Eastminster Presbyterian Church Youth Director Laura Long called Rocky Douglas at Forest Lake Travel to discuss 45 airplane tickets for upcoming youth mission trips. Laura also shared with Rocky that her daughter, Kat, was stranded in Peru and she would welcome his prayers. “Rocky says, ‘Wonderful, do you have a few minutes right now?’ Rocky prayed for my family right there on the phone,” Laura shares. “I felt the love of God and the love of a neighbor.” A connection was made, and tears were shed.
Meanwhile churches have offered virtual Bible studies, daily devotionals, sermons, book readings, and more. During one service, communion was offered. Participants prepared their own bread and wine or juice, and God’s comfort was given. Caroline Bennett, also of Eastminster Presbyterian, wrote of her family gathered at their kitchen table for virtual worship. At the passing of the peace, her phone lit up from fellow worshippers also passing the peace. Tears flowed.
One Sunday, Katherine Mahon Robinson reached out to her neighbors via Facebook with the following:
“Hey neighbors!! It’s Katherine Robinson. I’ve got something on my heart that I want to try. When churches closed, I thought it would be nice to have a neighborhood service in the park, but then the parks closed; but then the no gatherings of 10 doesn’t make communal worship of any sort possible — or does it? Here is my idea: on Sunday morning, everyone put a verse or quote of encouragement in their yard. Plasterboard, plywood, copy paper in your windows, or anything you can find. The weather may not be on our side, but I’d love for Sunday church this week to be an inspiring and encouraging walk around the neighborhood. No need to participate if you don’t have the supplies or can’t get out. Just an idea. Much love to you all.”
The overwhelming response is for the Columbia community to behold and cherish. Yes, we shall survive this together. We shall indeed.