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Difference Maker: Hayden woman sews, gives away thousands of masks

UPDATED: Wed., Dec. 30, 2020

After craft fairs and other activities were canceled in March, Ann Marie Shehan was left with yards of extra fabric and unexpected spare time.

The 62-year-old mother of three said she had planned to spend her and her husband’s retirement making aprons and other sewing projects to sell at markets and fairs. Instead, Shehan has used her stockpile of apron fabric, the leftovers from quilts and whatever fabric she can find on the shelves of thrift stores to sew masks that she gives away.

Shehan has been sewing for decades: projects in home economics as a teenager, doll clothes and quilts for her children when they were growing up, and aprons and other items to sell at craft shows and fairs after she left her job at a photography studio, where she did sales and worked in the darkroom.

She said early in the pandemic she had heard there was a need for masks in Washington and around the country, but didn’t hear of anyone in Idaho who needed them or was making any. She called around and realized there wasn’t any official local group supplying them and decided to use the fabric and supplies she had on hand to get started. Since March Shehan has sewn more than 3,000 masks from her home in Hayden and has given them away to neighbors, schools and anyone in the community who needs one.

“I think it’s a higher calling for me to do it,” she said. “I gave up on it three or four times, but (the need) just kept coming back.”

All Shehan’s masks are reversible and have adjustable straps. She also sanitizes them before putting them in plastic bags, to try to make them as sterile and safe as possible.

Shehan said her children have asthma, and her husband is at high risk for complications from COVID-19 and said she hopes the masks can protect them and others from the spread of the virus. She said purchasing high quality cloth masks and a few extras to wear every day can get expensive, especially for families who need to find child sizes, or people who are homeless, or who work at jobs where they wear them all day.

Ann Marie Shehan stands near the free mask display in front of her home in Hayden on Friday.  (Kathy Plonka)
Ann Marie Shehan stands near the free mask display in front of her home in Hayden on Friday. (Kathy Plonka)

Shehan has accepted some donations to buy more fabric and bags of fabric from community members but has refused to sell the masks she makes, saying her goal was to make sure they were available for everyone.

“There are a lot of families who have a lot of kids and going to the store and buying boxes of masks, sometimes, it’s just not feasible,” she said.

She sews masks for adults, but also has developed several different child sized masks which she has made available to schools and community members. She’s also given her masks to a few neighbors, one of which is a mental health care professional who has handed them out to patients.

She said she has given masks to Coeur d’Alene Public Schools, Holy Family Catholic School and the Saint Vincent de Paul’s thrift store in hopes that people who can’t afford multiple fabric masks, or a size that fits them, have access to the type of mask they need.

She’s also set up a table in front of her house so anyone driving by can pick one up. One couple who were looking for child-sized masks for their grandchildren who stopped by, Gil and Edlene Laird, said Shehan was making a real difference in the community. Edlene Laird said she planned to pay Shehan back for the masks by baking her zucchini bread, and the couple donated $10 for her to purchase more fabric.

“We really appreciate what she’s doing, there should be more like her around,” Gil Laird said.

Though Shehan first started making masks after she didn’t see anyone else making them in North Idaho, she said she’s sent them across the country to family, and said people with Washington license plates have dropped by to pick up masks and leave donations for her to by fabric so she can make more.

She said when she first started making them, she worried she would run out of fabric, supplies and money, but said community members who support the project have stepped up before she ran out, donating, dropping off fabric and calling to say they’re ready to supply anything she needs.

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