Cleatta Poland sits at her Brother sewing machine in Strawberry repeating a process that has been familiar to her for nearly 70 years. Although her tools have changed, Poland was taught to sew as a basic survival skill when she was five-years-old, and she easily repeats the work.

These days, though, she is driven by a unique focus on survival because she is producing masks for use in the ongoing struggle against the spread of COVID. Her skilled hands have, in roughly eight months of time, created nearly 2,000 masks.

As she works on each mask, Poland creates a variety of patterns and designs ranging from holiday-themed face coverings to elaborate beaded designs like the one created by her sister Deborah Martinez. “Debra has done about 20 of the beaded masks, including crosses for religious ones,” Poland states proudly.

“I started doing this to protect my family, and then others started letting me know they needed some, too,” says Poland. In a more matter of fact tone, she adds, “What originally inspired me was that I was not about to pay $5 for something I could easily make for 20 cents. I looked at the masks that others were making and said I can do that.”

Seeing a need well beyond her family, Poland began to wonder how she might help to address the growing problem. As it happened, she was not alone in her concerns. In fact, thanks to the members of her tiny home church, Poland has become part of a movement to help others in a unique way.

At Bold Spring Missionary Baptist Church, located just outside of Strawberry slightly over the line into neighboring Sharp County, Poland spoke with Beverly Fisher, another church member. Fisher brought the need for masks at Arkansas Children’s Hospital to the attention of Poland and other church members including Patricia Smart. The group formed a plan of action to help as many people as possible by providing them with free masks.

Others join mission

Since May of 2020 this small group of volunteers has been responsible for the creation of over 3,000 masks, and the effort has expanded beyond Bold Spring Church to include women from several communities in Lawrence County.

For example, Smithville resident Janet Shirtz recently produced numerous masks as part of the Bold Spring work, adding to hundreds of masks being sent to Arkansas Children’s Hospital in Little Rock.

But the children’s hospital is only one of the places benefiting from the actions of the Lawrence County seamstresses. Others include the John J. Pershing Veterans Administration Medical Centers (in Poplar Bluff, Mo., and Paragould), the Washington Elementary School (in Sherman, Texas), Hillcrest Public Schools (in Strawberry and Lynn), the Butterfly Ranch (in Swifton) and Morningstar Missionary Baptist Church (in Monticello). At the most recent count, individuals and organizations in Texas, Arkansas, Missouri and West Virginia have received these gifts.

Poland, Fisher and the others do not accept pay for the masks themselves, but will sometimes accept a small consideration to help offset material costs. The team also accepts donations of mask-making materials.

Poland quickly adds, “Only if they want to do so, though, because I (we) want people to wear our masks in good health.”

The team of mask makers have not limited their generosity at all.

“If you see me or one of the other ladies in Walmart or anywhere else, and you need a mask, all you have to do is ask,” says Poland, who laughs as she admits to carrying a “stash” of extra masks with her wherever she goes these days.

Praise for their efforts has been given by many including family, friends and countless others.

Retta Stuart of Lynn, also a member of Bold Spring Missionary Church, added, “While I have only provided material, I am very proud of our church ladies who have spent many hours making masks to help others.”

Erica Phillips, executive director of Volunteer Engagement for the Arkansas Children’s Hospital noted in a letter addressed to the members of Bold Spring Missionary Baptist Church, that the donation of the cloth masks helped everyone at Arkansas Children’s feel safer. “All of our patients, families and guests are required to wear masks when visiting one of our locations.” She added that, because of the masks being donated, the facility can continue to operate in difficult times.

Project’s reach is widespread

At Washington Elementary School, in Sherman, Texas, where Poland once resided, Dale Rideout is part of the Foster Grandparents Program. Rideout has volunteered to help with kindergarteners at the poverty-stricken school. Earlier this school year, Rideout says that a school counselor there asked if he could find someone to donate some masks to Washington Elementary students.

“We are in a poor neighborhood and families do not have money for some of the extras needed at school,” Rideout says. “So, I put a notice on Facebook asking for volunteers to please send masks for our children. A few days later I got a surprise package in the mail from Cleatta Poland in Arkansas.”

The package Rideout referred to contained about 90 handmade cloth masks in various sizes and colors, along with a note saying that her church had worked on this project and sent them for the Washington Elementary kids. Rideout added that Poland, who is a family friend to Rideout, encouraged him to choose one for himself. Rideout said, “I got a little selfish and picked out three because they were so pretty it was hard to choose just one.”

On a more serious note, Rideout stated, “We are living in very troubled times with the Covid virus, and it is refreshing to see folks like Cleatta and her friends who give not only of their money but also their time to make and send such thoughtful gifts to folks they only know through Facebook, like the students at Washington Elementary.”

Poland’s husband, Bob, is a disabled veteran of the United States Army, and fellow team member Beverly Fisher is the mother and daughter of military veterans. In fact, each person on the small team has military within their circle. For this reason, and a general sense of patriotic support, the team continues to produce masks for military hospitals.

Dale Garrett, voluntary service officer, John J. Pershing VA Medical Center, said “Cleatta (and the others) have been quite helpful in continuing to make and provide masks and that is a tremendous asset to our work here.”

Knowing that she is not alone as she works in her sewing room, Poland produces one mask after another to add to a true team effort that is spreading out far more than she and the other women at Bold Spring Missionary Baptist Church ever imagined it would when they began to answer a call.

Poland pauses the Brother sewing machine as she carefully surveys the mask in front of her, and then says in a reflective tone, “I have sewed all of my life and if it helps one person then it’s all worth it.”

As she starts to work again to the sound of her sewing machine, she finally says quietly, “I have been so blessed and rewarded through this work.”

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