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Oklahoma Standard Rises Again

Neighbors join together to help one another, creating a spirit of community

Oklahoma Standard Rises Again

Brittany Tate, R.N. (left), whose mother works for Southwest Rural Electric, and Linda Vargas, R.N., a Southwest Rural Electric member, work the screening station in the front lobby at Jackson County Memorial Hospital. Courtesy photo

Twenty-five years ago, a term was coined that celebrates the stalwart response of Oklahomans to disaster. Its genesis was April 19, 1995, a day of tragedy that came to be known as the Oklahoma City Bombing. In its wake, the people of our state joined together to help each other in a spirit of community that was dubbed by rescue workers and journalists the “Oklahoma Standard.” Indeed, the history of Oklahoma reflects strength and generosity in the face of adversity, from the Dust Bowl to killer tornadoes to today’s COVID-19 pandemic.

Emerging from China in late 2019 and early 2020, the novel coronavirus or COVID-19, had (as of 4/20/2020) infected nearly 2.5 million people globally, resulting nearly 170,000 deaths. In Oklahoma, 2,680 cases and 143 deaths had been reported.  By late March, to slow the spread of the virus, schools were closed, many Oklahomans were under “shelter-in-place” orders and everyone had been instructed to practice “social distancing.” Health care workers and first responders were in need of personal protective equipment and sanitizer to keep them healthy and actively fighting the battle against the virus—but equipment and supplies were in short supply.

As needs came to light, everyday Oklahomans joined the fray on the home front, producing face masks and shields, mask covers and hand sanitizer to protect those on the front lines, feeding schoolchildren, and providing hope and encouragement along the way.

Sewing Mask Brigade

“I saw the need for medical masks and took what I thought was a small step,” said Missy Whitfield of Nowata, a longtime seamstress and member of Verdigris Valley Electric Cooperative. But Missy’s small step turned out to be a huge one. Expecting to make a few masks to offer to friends and family in healthcare, she made a Facebook post on March 23, 2020. That post launched her Sewing Mask Brigade, stimulating more than 100 mask requests the first day. Others in the sewing and quilting community soon joined the crusade and JOANN Fabrics stepped in, offering to have supplies pre-cut and ready for pick-up with instructions, and promising to deliver the completed masks where needed.

Mask covers were also in high demand. With home health workers going into numerous homes daily and only one precious N95 respirator mask for a whole week, lengthening the useful life of each N95 mask was critical. The cover is a sleeve in which the mask is inserted, protecting it from soiling, so multiple mask covers can be used (or reused after washing) with one N95 mask.

Whitfield’s mother created a pattern for the mask covers and the pair worked together to produce the covers as quickly as possible.

Whitfield was also producing video tutorials to teach others in her “brigade” how to help.

Sewing Face Masks for Lawton

In the opposite corner of the state, similar efforts were underway. Shannon Jacobson, whose husband is stationed at Fort Sill, sews as a hobby and watched the response of the sewing and quilting community to the shortage of medical supplies as it unfolded on social media. Seeing what was going, Jacobson found an opportunity to help her own local hospital, Comanche County Memorial Hospital (CCMH).

“I contacted Comanche County Memorial and asked if they needed face masks. I got an email back saying, ‘Yes, we will take whatever we can get.’”

In fact, CCMH asked her to make masks from a special material.


“These are very uncertain times and it’s been absolutely amazing to see people come together, especially when we’re supposed to be distanced from each other. It has really shown what our country, our state and our communities can do.” 

- Missy Whitfield


“They gave me about 15 boxes of this material they had in excess; it’s what they wrap the surgical instruments in. Today, I’m taking boxes to volunteers working on that project. Some girls are cutting up squares. Some are doing cutting and sewing. Some are just doing sewing. It’s kind of an assembly line.”

Her “Sewing Face Masks for Lawton” Facebook group soon numbered 200, with at least 20 constantly working on the project for CCMH as well as the regular fabric masks. In a week’s time Jacobson and her colleagues produced about 200 masks, not including the special items for CCMH.

The Hospital Perspective

At Jackson County Memorial Hospital (JCMH) in Altus, the hospital was the beneficiary of efforts of the Southwest Quilters Guild and others who sewed fabric masks. Amanda Reimer, director, public relations and marketing, expressed the hospital’s appreciation.

“Our nursing and clinical staff make use of the N95 masks,” she said, “but those are currently in a nationwide shortage, so we are being very careful with their usage.”

The hospital was using donated fabric masks for patients and visitors who requested them. A supply of masks was kept at the hospital’s front desk for visitor use and masks were offered to outpatients in the JCMH rehabilitative services area and home care patients as well.

“Our community has pitched in to assist in this health crisis, and the crisis hasn’t arrived in full force yet,” Reimer said.

Shad Graves of NAPA Auto Parts donated N95 respirator masks to the hospital, prompting comment from JCMH infection prevention nurse Jacquelyn Pendergraft, a member of Harmon Electric Association: “NAPA has always gone above and beyond in service and delivery. This week that service went way above anything we could have ever expected. I am blown away by their generosity and concern for the caregivers in our area. We live in an amazing community!”

Sister Seamstresses

Another grassroots sewing effort served the needs of Duncan Regional Hospital (DRH). Identifying a need for masks there, sisters Tori Gonzalez and Mica Smith of Walters joined forces, gathered supplies and sewed three days straight to produce more than 100 masks. A large group of masks went to DRH and others to the Indian hospital in Lawton. And their efforts continued.

“We’ve been sewing nonstop so I am assuming right now we’ve produced about 700 masks,” Smith said. Gonzalez’ husband Sam is meter foreman at Cotton Electric Cooperative.

High Tech

In Norman, Engage Learning, a nonprofit organization for whom Oklahoma Electric Cooperative is a corporate sponsor, is taking a high-tech approach to the problem. Executive Director Bart Keeton launched Engage Learning in 2016.

“We started four years ago creating exciting breakthrough learning opportunities, hands-on and authentic, originally for middle school students.”

Since then Engage Learning has expanded its efforts to elementary and high school students, engaging them to innovate, create and implement solutions with such projects as a new school playground and a portable battery sharing system.

With student-based efforts on hold, Engage Learning put their talents to use producing a plastic face shield meant to cover N95 respirator masks or surgical masks. The open-source Prusa design for reusable face shields is manufactured on 3D printers. “We’ve had short term donations of large-format printers and will be printing about 100 a day,” Keeton said.

The face-shield initiative began in mid-March with production starting late March and ramping up daily. Organizations partnering with Engage Learning in the effort include Allied Plastic OKC, Kimray Inc., Automated Gasket, Prototek OKC - Oklahoma City Makerspace Community, M-D Building Products, Metropolitan Library System, Art Fusion Studio, David Ho and MTM Recognition.

Staff at OU Medicine will benefit from the Prusa masks produced by Engage Learning.

From Spirits to Sanitizer

Normally Guthrie’s Prairie Wolf Spirits distillery produces rum, vodka, gin and dark liqueur for the pleasure of its customers. But in March they realized their equipment could be converted to meet the critical need for hand sanitizer and they did just that.

“We produced 5,000 two-ounce bottles at first and put out a Facebook post about it. Suddenly hospitals, first responders, and other businesses started reaching out for more,” Prairie Wolf’s Jonathon Stranger said.

Deciding to limit their normal production, they focused on producing hand sanitizer as quickly as possible. By the first of April, they had donated more than 700 gallons to police stations, fire departments and others in need. They were also selling hand sanitizer to the public and filling bulk orders for grocery stores and others. Stranger, who also owns a restaurant, said they had been able to rehire staff for the distillery who had been furloughed from the restaurant to achieve the 50-fold increase in production required to produce 20,000 bottles of hand sanitizer a day, seven days a week.

“About a third of what we produce goes out through emergency responders. We are open to the public from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. for drive-through sales,” Stranger said. “We’re grateful to be of service; it’s been really cool meeting with police officers and fire departments. We appreciate their willingness to help us help them.”

Keeping them Fed

With kids out of school and many dependent on school cafeterias for their daily bread, districts across the state have been working out how to keep those students nourished. In Cleveland, Cindy Proctor, director of food services at Cleveland Public Schools and a long-time member of Indian Electric Cooperative, marshaled resources to accomplish just that, with 26 teachers, principals, secretaries, teachers’ aides and cafeteria workers volunteering to help.

Both breakfast and sack lunches were prepared at four schools and delivered to 29 locations served by Cleveland Public Schools, including some to the doors of people who were quarantined, according to Proctor.

“The numbers went up every day,” she added. Monday they delivered 363 and by Friday it rose to 589 for an estimated total of more than 2,000 meals for the first week.

And the response of those receiving the food?

“Oh, very welcoming,” Proctor said. “They are so happy we’re doing it; there were even some tears.”

Oklahomans helping Oklahomans … it’s not a new phenomenon, but the age of COVID-19 requires new ways to do it. With creativity, compassion and selflessness, once again, our people have answered the call. OKL Article End