Elizabeth Guitard. Photo: Yvette d’Entremont

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As a mother to three girls under the age of eight, Elizabeth Guitard’s life was busy before the pandemic hit.

But things have ramped up considerably in the days since the province’s state of emergency was declared on March 22. Guitard is now pulling 12 to 16 hour long days to ensure Atlantic Canadians who need face masks can get them. For free.

Her Dartmouth home is the headquarters of Masks for Humanity Atlantic Canada, a volunteer effort that rapidly grew from five people sewing masks at the end of March to a community-based endeavour that includes a steadily increasing stable of more than 200 needleworkers. 

“It’s never ending. It doesn’t matter how much time I put into it, there is always something else to do, and there’s always another person that I have to get in touch with,” Guitard said in an interview. “It’s definitely grown far beyond what I could ever have imagined.”

She also has 50 delivery drivers in addition to Lake Echo Lioness Club volunteers who wash and package the masks observing all public health guidelines. Everyone including Guitard volunteers their time with the sole focus of getting free masks into the hands — and onto the faces — of people throughout Atlantic provinces who need them. 

“In Canada health care is free, and there’s a reason that health care is free and that’s because everybody needs it. In this case I believe that anybody who needs or wants a mask should be able to get one easily, whether they have the money to buy it or they don’t,” Guitard said. 

“It’s not for me to say who may be able to afford it and who can’t. So basically we just decided that if you need one, then we’re here.”

With more than 7,000 masks made as of Monday and almost 5,000 already delivered, the initiative doesn’t seem to be slowing down any time soon.  

“There are a lot of people that are high risk or have somebody in their household at high risk who contact us because they want them for their household for things like going to the grocery store,” Guitard said.

“A lot of the time it’s just peace of mind. And also some stores are requiring you to wear them now. Like if you want to go to Costco now, you have to have a mask.”

Masks covering the Atlantic region

While many of those masks have been ordered by people living in HRM — the region hardest hit by COVID-19 — there are many Masks for Humanity delivery drivers volunteering in communities across Nova Scotia, including Cape Breton, where demand for masks is also high. Parts of New Brunswick also have drivers ensuring masks get into the hands of people in that province.

Masks ordered from people in PEI and Newfoundland and Labrador are currently being mailed via Canada Post. 

Guitard describes the current process as involving multiple spreadsheets to track who’s filled out an order form, when they placed the order, how many masks they ordered, and where they live broken down by postal code. Everything is pushed onto a delivery sheet handed over to drivers who bring the masks to their final destination. 

When we get really, really busy, sometimes we get backlogged and it takes a little bit of time to get out but everybody gets them,” she said. “The more people that are wearing masks, the more they are effective so we want to keep encouraging this message.”

Donations keeping things afloat

Some of the masks created by Masks For Humanity Atlantic Canada. Photo: Yvette d’Entremont

Although she initially used her own fabric, that supply quickly ran out. She has been able to provide volunteers with all the fabric and elastic required to make the masks due to public donations. Some people are regularly dropping off supplies in designated bins set up by Guitard and her volunteers. 

Others are making small donations upon receipt of a mask, while others are donating even if they’ve not ordered any. 

“That support helps us. Elastic’s not not cheap anymore, and the amount of fabric we go through is definitely not cheap, especially when you have to use 100% cotton,” she said. 

“But so far, the support that we’ve been receiving from the public has kept us going. We have had no issues with running out of fabric at this point.”

Her passion for the project is fuelled by the volunteers who have found purpose in contributing to their communities, by those for whom the masks deliver peace of mind, and by the people who reach out to express their gratitude for their masks.

Guitard recalls one order she packaged last Thursday. In the notes section of the request form, a man had asked for two masks and also provided a bit of background.

“He said that he had just gotten home from the hospital, because he was hospitalized with COVID and his wife had had it as well although she didn’t need to go into the hospital,” Guitard said. “I just I looked at that and I thought ‘That’s amazing that that came through to us and I can help that person.’”

She stapled a note to his mask package congratulating him on his recovery and return home from the hospital. 

“It’s things like that that make me go, ‘You know, this is why we’re doing it,’” she said.

Due to supply and the fact it’s a volunteer endeavour, there’s a limit of two adult masks per household except under exceptional circumstances. The group recently began making children’s masks too, so one household can now request two adult and two children’s masks.

“We would love to be able to supply a mask to every single person in the province, but we just don’t have the capacity to do that as we don’t have enough people sewing to be able to supply that many all at one time,” she said. 

“Hopefully in the future as we get more people sewing and we get more masks, we’ll be able to supply more and I can reopen the form and tell these people to come back and order the extras they weren’t able to get the first time.”

Asked how long she expects to be orchestrating this initiative, Guitard laughs.

“I will do it as long as it takes,” she said. “I tell my husband sometimes ‘You know we’re doing this until there’s a vaccine right?’ But if there’s people requesting them and they’re needed and I have the volunteers and the ability to keep going, then we’ll keep going.”

Labour of love for volunteers

One of the many volunteers on Guitard’s roster is Dartmouth resident Barbara Morgan, who’s been delivering masks since May 11. The retired military member has made 15 runs throughout HRM, with each run including about 10 to 20 drop-offs. 

She decided to jump onboard after ordering a mask from Guitard. She was so impressed with the organization and its mission that she pledged her support. 

“Elizabeth and her husband both put quite a bit of time into it…There are so many volunteers but obviously it takes the person at the helm to come up with the idea and the plan and to execute it all,” Morgan said in an interview. 

Barbara Morgan. Photo contributed

“Kudos to her because she’s got a lot of us and she’s the one who’s coordinating it all. Well done to her. She’s been amazing.”

Morgan’s delivery drives have taken her from Sheet Harbour to Beaver Bank, Tantallon to Jeddore, and Enfield to Moser River and places in between. 

“I had seen online there were quite a few people reaching out that were in dire straits. Immune compromised, elderly in high risk groups that were afraid to leave their homes, and others that were saying if they had a mask, they would be able to go to the grocery store, etc. etc.,” Morgan recalled. 

“That really got to me. So as long as I’m able, I’ll be grabbing a list and going to deliver. That’s a given.”

Morgan said she’s struck by how thankful people are when she delivers their masks. Whether they’re waving from a window or speaking with her while social distancing on their steps, they all express gratitude. 

She chokes up when recalling one of the first deliveries she made on a run to Beaver Bank. She looked at the sheet and checked for comments to make sure she was grabbing the right bag. 

“It was a 77-year-old male living by himself, and he said that he was going to be running out of groceries and he was going to have to go to the grocery store and could we please help,” Morgan said, her voice breaking as she cleared her throat and fought back tears.

“So yeah. When you see comments like that, you know, you get a bit choked up. This means something to people and it gives a lot of them some peace of mind.”

The hows and whys of mask wearing were well-covered in a recent Halifax Examiner piece by Philip Moscovitch. You can check that out here. For Morgan, seeing a growing number of people wearing masks in public is something she considers a positive during this difficult time. 

“You know, at the end of the day I think it’s important that we all walk around as if we are the ones infected, and we have to be concerned about everybody else that’s around us,” Morgan said. “We are in this together and should be taking care of each other.”

Suzanne Bailly is another Masks for Humanity volunteer. In addition to sewing masks, she does some volunteer administrative work for Guitard and has a box outside her Halifax home to collect supplies from people donating on that side of the harbour. 

“So far I think I’ve done 175 masks, but I’ve tried to take on a few other responsibilities to help out Elizabeth who’s got to be the busiest person in the world,” Bailly chuckles. 

“She’s a fine person. When I look at this young woman with three children, and a very supportive husband, and all that she’s doing, it’s amazing.”

Like many of the volunteers, Bailly is retired and was looking for a way to give back to her community. She said Guitard’s initiative has become a community of its own, with supportive online group chats and people who were once strangers now pulled together for one cause. 

“We’re feeling useful. And now that things are opening and a lot of businesses are requiring masks, people are starting to ask ‘Where do I get one and how do I get one,’ and so I don’t think we’re going to go out of business any day soon,” she said.

Bailly said they’re always looking for more volunteers, especially to sew the masks. She’s continually impressed by the high quality of the work being completed by the volunteers. She said for many, it’s more than a volunteer task. It’s become a labour of love. 

“Some of them are absolutely gorgeous. The fabric and sewing work is just beautiful. People aren’t just slapping them together,” she said. “It’s like a labour of love.”

Bailly said it’s important to point out that even if they aren’t making the large quantity of masks as Guitard’s initiative, there are many groups throughout the province doing the same thing on a smaller scale. 

“People are making them for their friends, for their neighbors, for family members, friends of family members,” Bailly said. 

“There’s a huge sewing initiative going on in this province right now and all for the same reason.”

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Yvette d’Entremont is a bilingual (English/French) journalist and editor who enjoys covering health, science, research, and education.

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