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Thousands And Counting: Rural Volunteers Make, Distribute Masks During Pandemic

Roxanne Wieland

Peggy Christianson calls the place she lives “our little area of the woods.”

All of the communities along the Forest-Oconto County border, like Lakewood, Townsend, and Wabeno, are rural and unincorporated.

But this “little area of the woods” has responded in a major way to the COVID-19 outbreak, thanks in large part to Christianson.

To date, she’s helped organize more than 100 volunteers, volunteer who have made more than 2,600 masks for people who need them, both locally and across the nation.

Credit Roxanne Wieland
Roxanne Wieland's parents, with masks she made for them.

For Roxanne Wieland, the masks-made count now stands at 326.

“This is actually the first time I’ve ever made any facial wear,” Wieland said.

She’s used to mending clothes, quilting, or even making stuffed animals.

But now, the cramped living room of her trailer home in Townsend has turned into a one-person mask factory.

“On one side, I have my sewing machine,” Wieland explained. “On the other side is my cutting mat, and then on top of my cutting mat is my ironing board. On top of my ironing board is my laptop.”

Credit Cindy Lynn Facebook
Often, the masks go to strangers. Sometimes, they go to family, like this volunteer's mother.

About a month ago, Wieland saw Peggy Christianson’s post on Facebook asking for help making masks.

Now, she’s one of the more than 100 local volunteers pitching in.

“Everybody has a story that has started helping,” Wieland said.

Wieland’s story is about the people to whom her masks are going, like firefighters, emergency responders, and grocery workers.

But it’s the healthcare workers she has in mind most because of someone no longer around.

“My aunt was a nurse. We lost her a couple of years ago, so she’s kind of my focus,” Wieland said, her voice filled with emotion.

Wieland describes her aunt as a caring, compassionate nurse anyone would like to emulate.

Credit Sandy Calaway
Sandy Calaway, a mask-making volunteer.

Wieland is just one cog on a large, all-volunteer mask-making project in this small, rural community.

It works like a small company.

Wieland is the master seamstress. Other volunteers are in charge of collecting materials, keeping records, and distributing the masks.

If this company had a CEO, it would be Peggy Christianson.

Credit Facebook
During the day, Peggy Christianson works as a nurse practitioner in Lakewood.

She’s a nurse practitioner in a medical office in Lakewood, but admits the mask project feels like another full-time job.

“It does,” Christianson said with a laugh. “Yes, it does, but it is so rewarding because everybody is donating their time.”

Christianson made the first Facebook post to draw in volunteers a month ago.

Now, she makes regular Facebook posts about the status of COVID-19, where masks are going, and the supplies the group needs. Elastic is especially hard to find, for example.

She’s proud her rural area, dotted with unincorporated towns, has had such success.

“The response throughout the state has been amazing,” Christianson said. “In our little community, it’s been phenomenal.”

Her efforts have been highly effective. For instance, she asked for people with 3D printers to print mask components and face shields. Now, 20 schools are using their equipment to pitch in.

“Everybody has the same idea that this is a necessary thing that we’re doing, and we’re doing it for people because they need it,” Christianson said.

Credit Cindy Lynn Facebook
A stockpile of 100 masks made by a volunteer this week.

If Christianson is the CEO of this volunteer company, Ashley Griffith is the technology manager.

“I will fully admit that I had no idea how involved it would get,” Griffith said. “I honestly thought it would be like a couple of hours of work.”

Ashley Griffith's Facebook profile picture.

Griffith makes and manages spreadsheets that record who needs masks and who can provide them. It’s become something like another job for her, too.

But that’s a good thing, Griffith said. She’s been in the Lakewood area for seven years, but never felt like she fully fit into the community until now.

“I have gotten to know so many people from this project,” said Griffith. “We truly have a ton of giving, thoughtful, selfless people in our area that I feel very fortunate to know now.”

Griffith has seen a shift in demand for masks.

At first, she said, it was hectic locally, as volunteers struggled to meet the needs of essential workers. Now, the group is producing so many masks, it’s sending many out of the area to places in need. The Navajo nation in the southwestern US, for example, got a shipment from the group.

Credit Charlie Brockman Facebook
More than 100 volunteers play a role in making masks for donation.

In the close quarters of her living room, the 327th mask will soon be produced by Roxanne Wieland’s sewing machine.

It will be the 2,659th made and distributed by this crew of volunteers, working out of their homes in the woods in this sparsely-populated area of northern Wisconsin.

“Right now, since we’re not scientists and can help get rid of the virus, this is where we can help the best,” said Wieland.

Local mask-making volunteers including the young and old.

If you’d like to learn more about volunteering time or donating materials to the project, contact Peggy Christianson or visit the group’s Facebook page. People or groups needing masks can apply here.

The group has also started a fund to help keep struggling local businesses and individuals afloat. Donations can be made at any Laona State Bank location, and people needing help can apply through this link.

Ben worked as the Special Topics Correspondent at WXPR from September 2019 until November 2021. He now contributes occasionally to WXPR. During his full-time employment, his main focus was reporting on environment and natural resources issues in northern Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula as part of The Stream, a weekly series.
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