Yokota’s Mask Crusaders pitch in to battle COVID-19

Yokota’s Mask Crusaders pitch in to battle COVID-19

by Meagan Henry
The Mask Crusaders

In response to the COVID 19 crisis, The Mask Crusaders, a group of volunteers at Yokota Air Base have stepped up to help our medical professionals. The group’s name may bring images of superheroes to mind, but the focus is on supporting some of the real life superheroes keeping us safe: the Samurai Medics of the 374th Medical Group. The Mask Crusaders are making fabric masks for workers to wear during “non-clinical patient encounters,” allowing essential PPE like N95 and surgical masks to be conserved and prioritized for those at the greatest risk for direct exposure to the virus. Within the first 10 days of forming, the group has made and delivered over 380 masks to Yokota's Samurai Medics, through completely donated materials, funds and time. 
Although The Mask Crusaders have been working in close cooperation with leadership at the 374th Medical Group, the growing group of over 50 volunteers helping out comes from across the Yokota Air Base community. Alexandra Kliber, a med group spouse who is sewing masks, is directly connected to the threat of COVID 19. She shared, “my husband is one of the providers that works the hospital screening tent and I am thankful that he has not yet had to worry about not having PPE. So I’m even more inclined to help." Mary Strobel, the spouse of a pilot in the 459th Airlift Squadron, is sewing and playing an organizational role in The Mask Crusaders. For her, it was a clear decision of where to direct her efforts: “we support our troops on the front line of a war, and in this particular problem, the med group is the front line. Being supportive of those tasked to take care of us is extremely important to me.”   
In addition to people sewing, there are also dozens of Mask Crusaders of all ages and backgrounds cutting fabric, washing and ironing donated fabric, and running errands to make things run smoothly and safely in this time of social distancing. Scott Stephens, retired Air Force 25 years, is tirelessly cutting fabric after joining to support the nurses in his wife’s ward. Former nurses such as Christine Carlson and Kate Bourgeois have also jumped in, along with Rebecca Gulledge, a nurse finishing out her maternity leave by making masks. Yokota’s Girl Scout Junior Troop 43 even joined in by delivering thank you cookies to volunteers after a week of hard work, and will earn a Bronze Badge for community service for their contribution of cutting fabric. 
Other volunteers have also included their children in their efforts, with many making the experience of cutting fabric or sewing masks part of an art or home economics lesson, while also taking the chance to talk about the importance of being a helper during a crisis. Jaclyn Escalera’s 8 year old daughter reported back to her teacher through a virtual classroom that helping, "made me feel happy because I was doing something to help doctors, nurses and medical workers who are trying to figure out how to keep us safe and healthy."
In fact, the constant refrain of The Mask Crusaders is how happy they are to be helping the Yokota community during this time. Theresa Borovietski, active duty Air Force, who has been sewing masks at the end of her work day, feels that "this group has saved me in some small way. My entire work and home life has been dominated by COVID and being surrounded by it in my awake hours has been mentally draining. Crafting has always been my happy place so it has helped me immensely to be distracted by something that makes me happy and more importantly helps others." 
Similarly, Hayley Gutierrez, a 374th MXS spouse, has found purpose in helping to sew masks while following the guidelines to stay home:  
Being a Mask Crusader has turned out to be really important to me. It’s given me something productive to do, and I feel like I’m making a difference. Before getting married and moving to Japan, I was a research assistant in a laboratory, and this is the first time since having to leave that job that I’ve felt like I’m really making a positive impact. 
Particularly when so many feel helpless hearing the news from around the world and anxious being separated from families back home in the states, having something to do along with a sense of connectedness among other people helping has been immensely rewarding. As one of the volunteers helping organize supplies and communications, I have certainly felt the same. 
The Mask Crusaders are quickly approaching the goal of providing every one of the Samurai Medics with at least one fabric mask, but plan to keep working to make use of the donated materials that have been received, as long as the need exists. María Villaruel, a spouse in the 374th Medical Group and volunteer helping to organize the effort has been overwhelmed by the response from Yokota, and truly sums it up by saying, “seeing so many people come together to support [the Samurai Medics] has brought me so much comfort and hope that our medical workers aren't taken for granted and we really are a team!" 

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