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When a WSU fan began making masks for health care workers, Cougar Nation assisted

Sam Gilbert, a 1989 Washington State University alumnus, has made hundreds of WSU masks for healthcare workers. (Courtesy)
By Maggie Quinlan The Spokesman-Review

Lately when Sam Gilbert gets home from a construction project in Spokane, he holes up in his makeshift sewing shop for six to eight hours of mask making.

He expected to make 30 or 40. When he posted to the Die Hard Cougs Facebook group with the offer to send free homemade masks to health care workers, he had 300 requests in a matter of hours.

As of last week, he’s made 900. It’s become a full-time job. And he’s received dozens of public thank you notes from frontline workers posting selfies in their Washington State University masks.

“A couple of friends who worked at the VA hospital and a couple of nurses, they were saying how they’re getting paper masks, having to use these things for five to seven days,” Gilbert said, through tears. “They’re good friends. They’re good Cougs. … I knew I could solve that problem.”

He didn’t question paying for shipping, for cloth – for everything, Jordanna Kirkwood said. The two met because Gilbert, a 1989 Cougar alumnus, was a big fan of her son, former WSU football player Gabe Marks.

“First he posted that he ran out of material. He had people all over the country saying, ‘I have Coug material,’ ” Kirkwood said. “Then he posted, ‘are there any Cougs that can lend me a sewing machine?’ ”

Kirkwood jumped on it. She posted asking for alumni to donate money for a new machine.

“That one day it was like $1,800 in about 10 hours,” Gilbert said. “It was over the top, it was like when I originally thought I’d make 30 masks and then the first week, 300 requests.”

For a few weeks, he was getting a regular weekly delivery of a 30-rack of Busch Light from a fellow “Coug” thanking him for his work. He’s also received handmade Cougar shirts and about 20 yards of material to make masks with.

He’d never planned to make money or get gifts. He prioritizes health care workers in his long list of people requesting masks. And even with donations, for the past month he estimated he made about $2 an hour. It took encouragement from one of his friends before he asked for donations.

“Before she hammered me about it, I was like three or four hundred dollars deep into this in my own pocket,” Gilbert said.

But the experience of sending masks across the country has changed the way he sees himself. A note from a health care worker sticks with him.

“He said something along the lines of, ‘It’s not my life you’re saving, it’s my family’s lives because I don’t want to bring this home to them.’ ” Gilbert said. “When he said that to me, I broke down. I lost it. I could not believe that I was making that much of a difference.”

And he’s not impressed with himself. He said his mother taught him to sew, his job running a one-man construction company taught him to solve problems and his adventures goose hunting gave him a good idea.

When he waits for geese he’ll lay in a wheat field in the snow until he reaches his limit. His polypropylene suit keeps him dry, while still being breathable. He decided he could put a piece of polypropylene in between swaths of cloth for a mask to better prevent the spread of droplets that could carry germs.

If you pour water on his masks, they’ll hold water, he said.

“I goose hunted and I sewed and that’s it,” Gilbert said. “In times of need, people will figure things out.”

Kirkwood said Gilbert is a good example of the culture of “Cougar Nation.” She said people knew he was giving his last dollar for health care workers in need, and hundreds were sending him donations via Venmo.

“He didn’t do it for recognition and he didn’t do it for a spotlight. He did it out of his heart,” Kirkwood said. “Where he needed pieces, we filled in the puzzle for him. That’s what it means to be a Coug.”