Volunteers sew face masks for WHHS staff and students


Tamar Sella

SENIOR Tamar Sella delivers 200 hand-sewn masks to Assistant Principal Jessica Smitson. (Courtesy of Tamar Sella)

Tamar Sella

The whir of a sewing machine, the press of an iron, the satisfying snap of an elastic. SENIOR Tamar Sella carefully finishes a handmade face mask, one of hundreds she has sewn since the start of quarantine. 

While many of her masks were donated to hospital workers, this one will protect someone closer to home in the WHHS community.

Sella first began making masks with Sew Masks 4 Cincy, a local group that started sewing masks for frontline workers in March. In recent months, they began donating them to several Cincinnati schools.

“Walnut Hills originally wasn’t on the list, but we have such a huge school and so many people that I thought it was really important that Walnut Hills get involved in this,” Sella said, “The need for masks has not gone away.”

Since the Ohio Department of Health issued a mask requirement order in late July, the spread of COVID-19 in Ohio has decreased more than 31 percent. If WHHS returns to blended in-person learning, all staff and students will be required to wear masks.

Sella decided to lead the WHHS effort and turned to her friends and classmates to grow the project. She found others through the Nextdoor app and the Eagle Flyer newsletter. Soon, ten WHHS students as well as faculty and community members had volunteered to put their sewing machines to work.

On August 12, Sella delivered a batch of 200 masks to WHHS, bringing the group’s total to 500 donated masks. Another 100 are currently in the works.

SENIOR Reilly Curp sets up her desk for sewing masks. Curp is one of 11 student volunteers. (Courtesy of Reilly Curp)

Sella has personally sewn an additional 300 masks for frontline workers and her friends and family. The process now takes her only 15 to 20 minutes per mask.

The group uses a pattern made by Sew Masks 4 Cincy, which includes space for the recipient to add a filter and nose wire. The organization also supplies the materials like fabric and elastic, which Sella distributes to the volunteers in two week intervals. After two weeks, they return finished masks to her.

“I feel like that’s a good way to keep people on track,” she said, “I know if I had a long time, I would probably procrastinate much more. But it also enables people to sign up for different amounts and different times. It’s just pretty flexible in terms of allowing people to do whatever they’re comfortable with.”

SENIOR Reilly Curp has contributed 20 masks since she joined the project in July. “It took me a little bit to get the hang of it, but everything is relatively straightforward and Tamar made a step by step instructional video that was super helpful when I started,” she said.

Previous sewing experience is helpful for the volunteers, but not required. Sella even lent one student a sewing machine and taught her the basics over video calls.

“A fair amount have had a little sewing experience or at least a family member who could help show them the ropes, but a couple had no idea,” Sella said.

Sella herself first learned to sew as a Girl Scout, and has more recently taken on projects like making herself a dress for her brother’s Bar Mitzvah. Last summer, she made a collection of children’s clothes which were sold at the Blue Manatee Literacy Project bookstore to raise money for the non-profit. The WHHS mask project is one more way she hopes to make a difference.

Though the motions of mask making are repetitive, each mask has a special meaning for the volunteers.

SENIOR Sofia Tollefson works at her sewing machine. Tollefson has contributed over 30 masks to the project so far and helped a neighbor learn how to sew masks. (Courtesy of Sofia Tollefson)

“People are experiencing their lives and their jobs in a whole different way than they ever thought possible,” Sella said, “And I think the transition for school teachers and administrators is especially daunting, because education is always such an important thing. But right now it’s really at risk.”

To Sella, the masks are protective equipment as well as a symbol of support.

“I think it’s very meaningful that students are rallying together to support the staff. I mean, a lot of us are seniors and we’re like, ‘this is our last year and what the heck even is happening’, but this is just the little thing that we can do to try to make things possible,” she said.

As WHHS returns to school, the group is still sewing masks and seeking new volunteers.

“You can do as little or as many as you want,” Sella said, “Every single mask is of great help. And come in-person learning, you’ll even be able to see your teachers wearing the masks you sewed, which I think is really fun to see.”

Students, parents, relatives, friends and neighbors are all welcome to participate or donate fabric that is 100 percent cotton. They can contact tsella@cincinnatips.org to get involved.


Disclaimer: Sofia Tollefson is a member of The Chatterbox staff.