A free mask initiative earlier focused on healthcare workers has shifted to the county at large – Lebanon County Commissioner Jo Ellen Litz and her team of 75 seamstresses have now distributed more than 5,000 face coverings to the community at no cost to recipients.

Read More: Effort arises to create fabric masks for healthcare workers, first responders

Litz’s team decided to transition focus to the public when it became mandatory for customers and employees in essential businesses to wear masks to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Litz has organized two community mask giveaways so far.

The first giveaway was Saturday, April 18, when she and several other volunteers gave out 500 masks. The team respected social distancing guidelines during the event, requiring those receiving masks to stay in their vehicles as donations were distributed. According to the team, 250 vehicles were able to receive masks, with each given a package of two.

“We wanted to be sure that everyone had a chance [to get masks],” said Litz. “Things just worked like clockwork and we were so grateful.”

Jo Ellen Litz holds up a sign directing drivers to the mask giveaway event. (Courtesy Christman’s Funeral Home)

The second giveaway, on April 25, took place in the parking lot behind the Lebanon County Courthouse. The second iteration had an even larger turnout compared to the first. Litz’s team was able to provide 700 masks to 350 people. Litz said they did not expect there to be enough demand, but hundreds of people came to pick up masks for themselves and their families. Within a few hours, none remained.

“Everything was epic,” said Litz. “It was just the perfect day and everybody was polite. They followed the rules, and we were so grateful for that.”

People wait in their vehicles to receive masks from the volunteers. (Courtesy Christman’s Funeral Home)

During this community giveaway, Litz and her team gave away their 5,000th mask.

“I don’t think any of us had any expectations of how many masks we would actually make,” said Litz. “[Handing out the 5,000th mask] was just an awesome moment.”

Both events were organized to provide access to masks for those who might not otherwise have been able to secure them, such as due to working schedules or financial insecurity.

Jo Ellen Litz holds a bag of masks, preparing to give it to the next vehicle at the community mask giveaway April 25. (Chris Coyle)

Behind the scenes of these events, a team of 75 Lebanon County women are “sewing their hearts out” to produce enough masks to distribute. There are also a number of women involved in the process who act as “runners,” transporting fabric, supplies, and finished masks to and from the various sewers.

Read More: WellSpan joins national campaign to publicly distribute masks

Without these women, who call themselves “Women Working Behind the Scenes,” giving out so many masks would not have been possible.

“The 75 women that are helping are awesome,” said Litz. “We have done far more than any one of us could have done on our own. 

“It totally is a team effort and I want everybody to know that if you work together, you can get things done,” she added. “You can move mountains.”

At both events, the masks were handed out for free, but people could give donations if they wanted. They received $570 in donations at the first giveaway and $553.51 at the second, which they gave to Speedwell Fire Company and Lebanon Fire Police, respectively, which had both helped them with traffic control. 

“They were so grateful since they can’t do fundraising right now, and must still provide fire protection, assist at accidents, and accommodate crazy requests like mine,” said Litz.

Aside from Litz, there were seven volunteers on site who helped distribute masks at the April 25 giveaway. Additionally, Christman’s Funeral Home partnered with Domino’s Pizza to provide lunch for the volunteers, and funeral director Greg Vaitl and intern Deana Slyter helped direct vehicles.

Greg Vaitl stands beside the pizzas Domino’s donated for the volunteers’ lunch. (Courtesy Christman’s Funeral Home)

“We used our funeral procession experience to direct the traffic,” said Vaitl in a press release. “It is such a great cause. I had to do something to help.”

Many people from the community have also helped the cause by donating fabric. Whether it was excess fabric seamstresses had lying around or new fabric bought specifically for mask production, the majority of the material used to make the masks was donated.

Litz even had a soldier give her an old military uniform to use, which she turned parts of into special masks for veterans at the VA Medical Center.

Pictured are some of the masks Litz made from the military uniform donated to her. Each patch indicates a certain rank or position within the military. (Provided photo)

Litz has already donated 340 masks to the VA Medical Center for use by patients and staff, and she plans to donate 200 more in the near future.

“They have a lot of positive [tests at the VA], so it’s a good place to make use of these masks,” said Litz.

Litz has also delivered 327 of her masks to Fort Indiantown Gap, where they will be used by members of the National Guard to protect them while in the field.

“Considering the profound and unique health risks faced by our Soldiers and Airman by this outbreak, the need for Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is critical,” said Command Sergeant Major Shawn Phillips of Fort Indiantown Gap in a press release.

Jo Ellen Litz stands with members of the National Guard at Fort Indiantown Gap after donating 327 masks to them. (Provided photo)

At this point, Litz and the Women Working Behind the Scenes are unsure if they will do more mask distribution events. Their challenge is making sure that they are not saturating the market, but also that everyone who needs or wants a mask gets one.

“We have to know when is the right time to stop,” said Litz. “We’ll see, we just have to play it by ear. 

“We have trusted in the Lord’s guidance this far and we won’t stop now.”

Read all of LebTown’s COVID-19 coverage here.

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Full Disclosure: The campaign of Jo Ellen Litz were advertisers on LebTown during the previous election cycle. Christman’s Funeral Home is an advertiser on LebTown at present. LebTown does not make editorial decisions based on advertising relationships and advertisers do not receive special editorial treatment. Learn more about advertising with LebTown here.


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