SUGAR GROVE, Pa. – Sometimes the worst of times brings out the best in people.
Mary Passinger of Sugar Grove is one of those people.
Passinger has always been about helping others – whether that was when she taught English and Journalism at Eisenhower High School or when she selflessly gave back to her community as an unpaid school board member.
But she took that service to another level at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic when she decided she needed to do something to help out and decided to start making masks.
It wasn’t just one mask or 10 that she made. Heck, it wasn’t even 1,000. It is at over 4,000 masks and growing, and she doesn’t ask for anything in return for them – although some people insist.
“My husband and I talked about (how it got started),” Passinger told yourdailylocal Wednesday. “I’m not exactly sure. I know somebody posted online back in March that hospitals needed masks because they couldn’t get them. The hospitals, it ended up, weren’t taking masks. But I knew people working in hospice, and they said ‘yes, please’ when I asked them about needing masks. That kind of started it.”
After starting to make the masks, Passinger posted online, especially on the Helping Hands of Warren County Facebook page that she could make masks if anyone needed them.
“I had no idea I would make 4,000 masks,” Passinger said. “There is just something about it. Several people said I am an angel. I am not. It is just something I can do. (Sewing) is something my mom taught me. I can’t help in hospitals. I can’t do anything to make people healthier. Making masks keeps me sane. I don’t have time to sit around and think about or worry about what is going on. It has kept me grounded, and it has really helped me get through this last year.”
Passinger doesn’t ask for anything in return for her masks, although she said she has found that some people want to give her something because it makes them feel a part of what is going on.
“I don’t want fame and fortune,” Passinger said. “I want everyone willing to wear a mask to have one. I don’t want them to worry about paying for it. If they have a mask they like, they are more willing to wear one.
“Some people have made donations. When I started, I didn’t want to take them. But some people want to feel like they are contributing. If they are donating, it is their way of paying back. I will take the donation if they want to make one, but no one needs to donate.”
(Photo courtesy Mary Passinger. Passinger made these masks for her daughter’s wedding.)
Originally, Passinger said she was going to use material she had laying around her house for the masks, but quickly realized it wasn’t the correct type of material.
“My sister-in-law used to own a fabric store in Warren, and although it is no longer open, I asked if she had any material I could use, and especially elastic, because elastic was hard to find at first. She had elastic, and she had what they call fat quarters, which are just a small square of material. But there is a lot of variety of it. I started out with that.”
Since then, Passinger and her husband, Bob, have bought a lot of the material that she uses.
“I had some gift cards to JOANN fabrics that I had from my birthday that I used,” Passinger said. “I would go up and buy $50, $75 worth at a time. It has added up. But I feel very thankful that we are in a position where we can afford it, and I can go and buy it and we are still ok. It is not that we are rich, but we can afford to buy a little every month.”
Passinger said every once in a while someone will give her a bag full of material.
“That is awesome when that happens,” Passinger said.
Passinger said she wouldn’t have been able to complete all these masks without Bob.
“My husband is an important link in this mask making,” she said. “He chauffeurs me all over the county-we deliver all the masks, cuts elastic and maps out the delivery route. I couldn’t do this without him.”
Passinger, despite her sewing background, like most of the rest of us didn’t know much about making masks when she started.
“I went to YouTube,” Passinger said. “The first video I looked at, I am still using today. I was lucky. The YouTube video I found does a two-layer mask. Since March, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has come out numerous times that masks like this are the best ones are the N95s and medical masks.”
Passinger has gone through a couple of sewing machines during her mask making.
“I made about 1,000 masks, and my sewing machine was breaking needles,” Passinger said. “So I went to Walmart and bought another cheap machine. That one broke, too, and I went back to my old standby. It has been reconditioned.”
Passinger said it takes about 10 minutes to do one mask.
“I keep trying to time it,” Passinger said. “It comes out to about 10 minutes per mask, which doesn’t sound like much. But when you are doing 600 of them at 10 minutes apiece, it adds up.”
Speaking of 600 (or more) masks, Passinger is busy at work on masks for Christmas.
“I am still making them,” Passinger said with a chuckle. “I offered to make Christmas masks, and after 650 requests it is really going to be hard to get them done by Christmas but I am going to do my best.”
Passinger started out making masks just for adults but has transitioned into making different sizes for children now as well.
“I started with adults, but now I have small and large child ones, and I just started making medium-size ones for kids,” Passinger said. “Kids grow differently. It’s hard to find masks that fit them. If they don’t fit them, they aren’t going to wear them.”
The “Mary Masks” have become so popular, they’ve gone international.
“I’ve mailed masks to a woman in England,” Passinger said.
Passinger said when she goes out, she looks around to see if people are wearing the masks she made.
“For me, it’s a personal belief,” Passinger said. “I think masks really help. I am looking all the time to see if I see my masks are on people. I want them to wear it. I want everyone to have one, and I want them to be comfortable in them and think they are cute. I really believe they will wear them if they are cute.”