A labor of love: Main kitchen cook helps her community mask up

Beth Bennett, photo
Beth Bennett followed safety precautions while managing to craft and distribute 2,700 masks during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Beth Bennett never set out to sew and distribute 2,700 masks during the COVID-19 pandemic. But now that she’s passed that mark, she has her sights set on 3,000.

“It’s such a simple thing, and some people can’t afford to buy them,” she says. It all started when a co-worker told Bennett they wanted masks. Bennett, a cook in the main kitchen at UI Hospitals & Clinics, told her, “Well, I can make some if you want to help. I have tons of fabric.”

The two women began in Bennett’s house. They worked for two weekends in a row, cutting the patterns, sewing, and ironing the masks. Prepping and cutting each mask took them about 20 minutes; sewing each mask took just under five minutes. But they also had to follow safety precautions.

“We had gloves on, we had masks on, all the fabric was pre-washed and dye-free, (we used) chemical-free soap, washed on hot,” says Bennett. “We were just really cautious about how we were doing it to make sure that everything that we brought in was sanitary.”

Little did Bennett know her work was just getting started.

Demand for masks grows

Bennett’s original goal was to make 500 masks, but the need was higher than she realized.

As the youngest of seven children, Bennett grew up sewing. With six sewing machines at her home, she says, “I can just sit in an office chair, line up all my sewing machines, and just wheel from one to the next.”

Others joined her effort, taking masks and ironing them at home. And Bennett’s machines continued whirring.

“I would come home and I would sew for two, three, four hours a night and try to get 100 to take in the next day,” she says.

Bennett’s niece, Tabitha Gioimo, began helping as a way to give back to UI Health Care.

She is a childhood cancer survivor because of the hospital. She was diagnosed at the age of 13, and so she was really excited about jumping on board and helping to sew because she wanted to give back to the university in some small way.

— Beth Bennett, UI Hospitals & Clinics

A snowball effect

What began small soon grew and Bennett began donating masks outside of her department. Teachers and hair salon owners also asked for masks. And she dressed up in a dinosaur costume to distribute masks throughout her neighborhood.

“You name it, I was just trying to get people covered,” she says. And then more people pitched in to help Bennett. A co-worker donated Hawkeye fabric, a friend at the Dubuque JOANN Fabrics gave Bennett discounts and donated scrap material, and a friend who’s a professional quilter donated 200 masks.

“People have donated money, time, and it’s got of a life of its own. I want everybody to have access to these masks because it’s about helping everybody,” she says.

Bennett says this journey is about the Golden Rule: Treat others as you would like to be treated. And she’s prepared to help anyone who needs a mask.

“Every time I go somewhere, I always have my Ziploc baggie in the car,” says Bennett. “If somebody says something, I hand them a mask and say, ‘Here’s something that might help you be safe and other people be safe around you.’”

One day, when the pandemic is over, after Bennett no longer has to make masks, she’s looking forward to a return to normalcy. Bennett, a singer, used to perform with a band called Bunny in the Headlights.

She attended college to study costuming and stage design, and she’s worked with a Dubuque drag group called Divas After Dark, helping with their costuming and evening gowns.

But for now, she’s content sewing and helping others in the community. Bennett has sewn nearly 2,700 masks so far.

We need to take care of each other. I could not have done this without all the people helping and really wanting to make sure that everybody’s covered.

— Beth Bennett, UI Hospitals & Clinics