Phoebe Barnes, a student at the University of Central Oklahoma (UCO) was in the middle of her sophomore year when the COVID-19 pandemic sent everyone into their homes. She had just been accepted into the nursing program at UCO, she was planning events as Sigma Kappa’s campus activities officer and was working as a medical typist for a urologist at the OU Medical Office. Her collegiate experience was going exactly as she had hoped. When her campus shut down due to the pandemic, she returned home and was forced to quit her job for fear of infection of COVID-19 due to her autoimmune disease. Everything she thought her collegiate experience would come to a crashing halt.
After spending weeks physical distancing and staying inside, Phoebe’s life looks a little different. Instead of spending time with sorority sisters on campus, she is making face masks for health care workers and collecting donations for her new nonprofit organization – Masks for Oklahomans.
The organization started when her mother’s friend, Amber, posted on Facebook asking for help sewing face masks for health care workers. Having a lot of experience sewing, Phoebe thought this was a great opportunity to help her community during a crisis. Amber’s initial ask was 600 masks and Phoebe quickly got to work. As a nursing major, Phoebe recognized the importance of protective gear for those on the front line. “I want to help our doctors and nurses who are risking their lives to protect our community,” she said.
Shortly after Phoebe began sewing masks, she brought in her friend, Shelby, to help. “Shelby and I became very passionate about the cause and within a matter of weeks, Shelby, Amber, and I put together Masks for Oklahomans,” she said.
Utilizing Community Strength
Phoebe has used her membership in Sigma Kappa to promote Masks for Oklahomans to her chapter and the Panhellenic community. “Even though the campus is closed, I use my position to inform my chapter on how they can help our community from home,” Phoebe said. Thanks to the encouragement of some friends, Phoebe spoke about her organization at a College Panhellenic meeting to engage the entire Panhellenic community, and she has worked with other student organizations to gather donations and recruit volunteers.
Shelby and Phoebe have also been active on social media and completing interviews with local publications and news stations to raise awareness for their work.
Their local community has come together to gather donations (financial or materials), sew masks and spread awareness about the organization’s work. Between 150-200 volunteers have helped make this organization a success.
“It is really cool to see that people from all ages and all walks of life are coming together to help sew masks for our organization,” Phoebe said.
They have also created partnerships with local businesses to help fund their endeavor. Phoebe recalls that when they received their first community organization partner that Shelby called her screaming with joy.
“I think it’s really easy to be pessimistic in these times, but seeing our volunteer numbers grow and seeing our community partners increase has been really encouraging. It reminds me that people do care and are wanting to help.”Phoebe Barns
Making 10,000 Masks
When they officially started their organization, Masks for Oklahomans set a goal of 10,000 masks to be made and distributed to local hospitals, first responders and even a local news station that was in need of masks. Knowing the need in their community was so great, they set such a large goal to help provide protective materials to those who needed it most. Hospitals were desperate to protect their staff and asking for any and all donations they could get.
Donations of materials and volunteers began contacting them to help. With the hard work of Phoebe and others in her community, they were able to reach their goal of making and donating 10,000 face masks just a few weeks later.
Phoebe and Masks for Oklahomans may have reached their goal, but they haven’t stopped working. They are still continuing to get new requests each day and have received so many requests they have lost track of how many have come in. “We have never said ‘no’ to a request,” Phoebe said.
Now they have started helping more at-risk citizen groups and small businesses as demand from hospitals has lowered in the past few weeks.
Phoebe says as long as masks are needed, they will continue working. “We see a need in our community,” she said, “and we plan to fill it.”