Cathey’s Sewing & Vacuum volunteers create 35,000 masks for first responders

click to enlarge Judy Payne with bundles of mask kits at Cathey's Sewing & Vacuum - COURTESY JACKIE PAYNE
Courtesy Jackie Payne
Judy Payne with bundles of mask kits at Cathey's Sewing & Vacuum

The arts and crafts community around Cathey’s Sewing & Vacuum stores have kept busy during quarantine by sewing tens of thousands of masks for local hospitals, first responders and law enforcement.

The Tucson-based business is welcoming volunteers to sew face masks for essential workers at any of their three locations. Over the past two months, volunteers at the family business have produced an estimated 35,000 masks – and they don’t plan on stopping.

“Our purpose in doing this is to help the community,” said owner Donny Cathey. “Tucson and Southern Arizona have been unbelievably supportive of our family business and all the families that our business supports. I believe that any local business such as ours has a duty to give back to the community that supports it.”

The initiative began when the local non-profit Beads of Courage called Cathey to help Banner Health in making specialized masks. These masks are made with a blue-and-white sterilization wrap normally used with medical instruments.

The volunteer effort is spearheaded by Judy Payne, 59, who was disheartened when COVID-19 stopped her from attending many of her favorite activities, such as teaching quilting classes and babysitting her grandchildren.

Payne became involved in March, when her daughter Jackie, who works at Cathey’s, told her about the project.

“My daughter came home and told me about it, how they were going to make masks since there were places running low on them,” Payne said. “The next day was actually her day off and we went in together to make masks… Our first day we made 775.”

The materials are supplied by Banner Health, Carondelet Health Network hospitals, Northwest Hospital, and individual surgery centers. After being cut and sewn together by store volunteers, the finished products are donated back to these facilities, in addition to other places such as Tucson Fire Department and Navajo Nation – a community that was greatly affected by the pandemic.

Bundled sew-at-home kits are also available containing materials for 22 masks. Volunteers are asked to keep only two and return the rest to the store for donations.

Due to Payne living with Lupus, an autoimmune disease that attacks the tissue, she was originally given a separate room at Cathey’s to work in.

“They were so accommodating,” Payne said. “But as time went by… I didn’t stay in the little room anymore and joined the big classroom.”

This was because as volunteers dropped in, Payne found a core group of four ladies (older than she) who would do nothing but volunteer and then go straight home.

“They weren’t out and about, and so we got real comfortable,” Payne said.

Besides the convivence of checking up on her mother’s health, Jackie is simply glad to have her mother to work alongside.

“She’s my best friend,” Jackie said. “Having her here is really great, she has a purpose to be here.”

Payne says it is impressive that people “from all walks of life” line up at the store to buy or repair sewing machines to make masks. Whether it is volunteers who never sewed or seniors taking their chances on coming outside, Payne sees so many who are readily willing to help just like her.

“Everybody was at home not knowing what to do with themselves, wanting to help but didn’t know how or where,” Payne said. “Donny Cathey and his store gave the people the opportunity to actually do that. They were able to do something, producing these masks and kits made people feel good.”

Cathey says the initiative of making masks will continue as long as they have the materials.

“All of us hope that there’ll come a time in the not too distant future that we won’t need the masks and that this will be put behind us, be a memory,” Cathey said. “[But] there is still a lot of need, so we are going to try to fulfill that need in our future plans to the best of our abilities.”

Cathey’s Sewing & Vacuum is opened Mondays through Friday from 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., and Saturdays from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Essential workers can come in to pick up two masks if they show their ID.

Mekayla Phan is a University of Arizona journalism student.