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Sewing with love to protect caregivers and the disabled

Volunteers create 117 reusable isolation gowns
The reusable gowns created by Innisfail and Red Deer volunteers are already being used and tested by staff at Parkland CLASS, including Julie Randall, left, and Kirk Zimmerman. Submitted photo

INNISFAIL – In less than two weeks a dozen committed and hard working ladies from Innisfail and Red Deer rallied to make the lives of hundreds of vulnerable citizens and their caregivers safer from COVID-19.

With the pandemic beginning to spread exponentially across the region last March, senior officials with Parkland Community Living and Supports Society (Parkland CLASS) were urgently placing orders for disposable isolation gowns for staff.

However, availability was an issue, and the urgency increased for the Red Deer-based agency that provides supports for 450 adults and children with developmental disabilities living in 40 group homes across Central Alberta and Northwest Territories.

But a timely moment of inspiration came from Roxanne MacKenzie, the society’s COVID supply coordinator.

“We decided to take matters into our own hands and started to explore the feasibility of sewing resusable gowns,” said MacKenzie. She quickly found a suitable isolation gown pattern on the internet but she needed sewers.

On April 7, MacKenzie contacted her close friend Joanne Derby, a longtime Innisfailian who had created many dance costumers over the years, to see if she was interested in a sewing project.

“I guess she thought of calling me as she knows I am a sewer and could possibly have a few ideas for local businesses that may have the fabric needed and friends that may be able to help out if the project materialized,” said Derby, who immediately went to work.

She suggested enlisting the help of longtime Innisfailians Anne and Bob Wells, owners of Elanna Outerwear Ltd, a home-based business that retails outerwear fabric. Derby made the call. Bob and Anne were all in. The couple’s 41-year-old son David has been a group home resident with Parkland CLASS for the past 21 years.

“I had a big cutting table and I said to Joanne, ‘how about we cut them out and we can have ladies from the community sew them,’” said Anne.

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Within 24 hours, Anne provided material to Derby, who then completed the first non-disposable prototype. She also added notes to sewing instructions to assist sewers.

Anne and Bob cut out material and created kits of pattern pieces, piping, interface, and elastic.

And then it was time to find a team of sewers.

Anne knew a group of ladies from a local quilting club. They called themselves the Sew & Sews Group. For many years they quietly volunteered their services for many charity projects, including for the Red Deer hospital's neonatal unit, Autumn Glen Lodge, Rosefield Centre, Ronald McDonald House, and Innisfail and District Victim Services. More recently, they made 200 masks for the homeless in Red Deer, as well as 80 bags for Red Deer nurses to store their scrubs.

“Linda Gunderson was the lady I was in touch with and she said, ‘we are having a parking lot meeting today.’ They were all going to be in their cars and be safe. She approached some of them to see if they was interest in putting these gowns together.”

They too were all in, along with a couple of Red Deer sewers. The volunteer sewing team was set. Joining Derby and Gunderson were Innisfailians Janice McBride, Katie MacKinnon, Karen Carr, Carol Harke, Betty Riehl, and Melisa McBride, as well as Red Deerians Jackie Dallas and Perri Wiart.

“We distributed the kits, five to 10 at a time to each sewer. As they were completed we picked them up and left more to do as each person was willing and able. Anne and Bob spent hours cutting, measuring and making up kits,” said Derby, who coordinated the sewers, as well as picking up completed gowns. “It was just amazing how everyone was so thankful to be able to help out in these troubled times.”

The last of the gowns were picked up on April 20. In less than two weeks the group of ladies completed 117 gowns for staff at Parkland CLASS.

The agency now has several COVID-19 kits, with each containing six to nine isolation gowns and other PPE, such as face shields, masks, gloves, and disinfectant.

MacKenzie said the kits are ready to be deployed to any group home that has a suspected case of COVID-19.

“So far, the gowns have been used for several suspect cases that tested negative,” said MacKenzie. “We hope we never have to deal with a positive case, but if it should happen the staff of Parkland CLASS is well protected thanks to these volunteers.”

But it is the volunteers who are showing their gratitude today. They seek no reward, other than to humbly accept the fact their hard selfless work has served the greater good for the community, especially for Parkland CLASS staff devoted to helping the vulnerable. 

“Everybody had a reason for this that they just wanted to donate their time and we did it in a very efficient time frame. From start to finish it was less than two weeks for all of those gowns, from the initial prototype to the last delivery,” said Derby. “As my friend Janice McBride said, “it made our hearts happy that we could help.”