GRAND FORKS — Betty Williams was looking for a project.
After being furloughed from her job in April, Williams was listening to the news when she learned about an ongoing mask shortage for hospital and nursing home workers.
“This is something I can do. I can make masks,” Williams recalled thinking.
She decided that if health care workers are having a hard time getting masks, her neighbors are likely having troubles, too. So, she got to work. She planned to make about 50 masks.
But, her family wondered, what would she do with them?
“I said, ‘I'm going to put them out on that tree,’” she said. “They looked at me kind of strange. I said, ‘Well, if people want them, they can take them.’”
Thus began the process of sewing masks and pinning them on a tree outside of her home on west University Avenue in Grand Forks, near Jaycees Park. A sign on the tree reads “help yourself, FREE.”
When Williams started the project back in early April she didn’t keep track of how many masks were being taken. Out of curiosity, toward the end of the month, she started to keep a tally.
“Sixty-five masks went off my tree in one week,” she said.
Soon enough, making masks became part of her routine.
“I got up, I made masks, sewing all day long,” she said with a laugh.
Williams estimates that more than 500 masks have been taken from the tree since she first started. Eventually the numbers dwindled; around the first week of June, only five or so masks had left the tree. She thought it marked the end of her mask-making days. She took her remaining mask remnants and turned them into a quilt top.
“It's my mask memory quilt,” she chuckled.
But by the time she finished the quilt, demand for the masks started to rise. She started again, even dipping into her husband’s craft supplies to keep everything going.
“He's been a chief contributor,” she said.
Some people have left kind notes or even monetary donations to thank Williams for the masks. Sometimes it’s a couple of dollars, maybe a $20 bill. One time, someone donated $100 along with a handwritten note of gratitude.
Williams likes to read the notes when she gets flustered or worried. They bring a smile to her face, she said.
Though she originally planned to take all of the monetary donations and give them to the Salvation Army, Williams said she’s had to tap into the cash a couple of times to pick up fabric or ribbon for the mask straps.
In addition to the masks that go on the tree, Williams also has made masks for local organizations in need of face coverings. One is the Good Samaritan home in East Grand Forks.
Additionally, Williams said the Ramada Inn, where she works, gave her three sets of sheets to use on the interior of the masks. The material works well to line the masks, she said.
“I have had a lot of help in this,” she said.
Williams knows she isn’t alone. Other organizations, church groups and individuals also have stepped up to ensure as many people as possible have masks.
Everyone can do a little something to help, Williams said, whether it’s making masks, social distancing or simply wearing a mask.
“You never know who you might be helping and what they in turn might be able to do to help others,” she said. “The wheel turns. It just keeps going and we can all do some good.”