Phoebe Barnes, a student at the University of Central Oklahoma (UCO) was in the middle of her sophomore year when COVID-19 locked down the U.S. She had been accepted into the nursing program at UCO, 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. When campus shut down she returned home and she had to quit her job for fear of infection of COVID-19 due to her autoimmune disease.
Now, after spending weeks physical distancing, 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 told her about a friend, Amber, who posted on Facebook asking others for help sewing masks for health care workers. Amber’s initial ask was 600 masks and Phoebe quickly jumped at the chance to help. Since she knew how to sew, she thought this was a great opportunity to help her community during a crisis. As a nursing major, Phoebe recognizes 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 as well. “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 position within 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, she has spoken about her organization at a College Panhellenic meeting to involve the other sororities on her campus and worked with other student organizations on campus to gather donations and 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 receieved their first community organization partner that Shelby called her screaming with joy.
“I think it’s really easy to 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, they set a goal for 10,000 masks to be made and distributed to local hospitals, first responders and even a local news station when they discovered they didn’t have any masks. They set such a high goal due to the number of masks that hospitals were asking for. On April 8, just a few weeks after setting the 10,000 mask goal, they reached it thanks to their hard work and the help of their community.
They may have reached their goal, but they haven’t stopped working. They have received so many requests that they have lost track of how many have come in. They are still continuing to get new requests each day and Phoebe says “we have never said ‘no’ to a request.” 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.”