Minnesota Legion Family helping provide masks at critical time
(Photo by Tim Engstrom)

Minnesota Legion Family helping provide masks at critical time

Effective July 25 due to the coronavirus pandemic, Gov. Tim Walz mandated that all of the state’s residents ages 6 and over, with a few exceptions, are required to wear a face covering in all indoor businesses and public indoor spaces, unless alone. Workers also are required to wear a face covering when working outdoors in situations where social distancing cannot be maintained.

The new mandate makes a collaboration between the American Legion Department of Minnesota’s Legion Family and the state chapter of Quilts of Valor (QoV) that much more important – a collaboration that has produced thousands of protective masks for residents of state veterans homes and patients at various Department of Veterans Affairs facilities.

“I think it’s so important that The American Legion takes the lead in this,” said Minnesota American Legion Foundation President and 49-year Legionnaire Lloyd Stricker. “I feel great that we can do it as a family. Helping veterans is what we’re all about.”

The quilts made by Quilts of Valor volunteers are awarded to U.S. military servicemembers and veterans who have been touched by war in some way or shape. But the pandemic made it difficult for the quilters to both gather to work on the quilts and present them in person to recipients. But through a conversation with Minnesota National Executive Committeeman Bill Barbknecht, who is a friend with Minnesota Quilts of Valor State Coordinator Jenny Caughey, Ricker learned that local Quilts of Valor chapters were unable to meet up to quilt or award as many quilts as they normally did because of stay-at-home orders and social distancing.

By that time, the Department of Minnesota already had received requests for masks, while Legionnaire Randy Olson – a member of the department’s COVID-19 Committee – had discovered that VA hospitals and veteran homes in the state were running short on masks.

A few sewing groups were able to manufacture some masks, but Ricker found out that Quilts of Valor could manufacture masks at a faster rate and larger quantity provided they were able to purchase an AccuQuilt cutter, which cuts fabric shapes significantly faster than by hand. That led to a $1,000 donation from the Minnesota American Legion Foundation to cover the cost of the cutter, dyes and fabric.

Caughey a member of QoV’s Dent, Minn., chapter, said a relationship already existed between Quilts of Valor and the Minnesota American Legion at the post, district and department level. But the relationship took on a new meaning when the coronavirus pandemic hit.

“Quilters still want to quilt, and we continued to make Quilts of Valor,” Caughey said. “But then when Mr. Ricker called … and said that they had been getting calls from the veteran homes with a plea for help with masks … it was sort of a no-brainer. The American Legion has been incredibly supportive of us in Minnesota, and I think in many other areas of the country as well. The idea that our veterans are not being provided something as simple as a mask to keep them somewhat safe was just wrong. It was an easy ‘yes, of course we’ll help.’”

The quilters’ base of operation are two rooms in the Dent Community Center, a former elementary school with a drive-up window that allows for ready-to-sew masks to be safely picked up and completed masks dropped off while observing social distancing.

Ricker said Minnesota American Legion Riders deliver many of the masks, sometimes meeting up at midway points throughout the state to hand off masks to each other for final delivery.

Auxiliary Unit 148 in Dent also purchased $300 of fabric for the effort, while Caughey said some Auxiliary members also are members of Quilts of Valor and assist with sewing the masks.

“It’s kind of a family deal,” Ricker said. “You actually have the whole (Legion) Family working on getting masks for the veterans. And right now, with the governor’s new policy, it’s more important than ever.”

More than 5,400 masks have been sewn by the quilters and distributed to the five Minnesota Veterans Homes in Fergus Falls, Luverne, Hastings, Silver Bay and Minneapolis; and to four VA facilities in Minneapolis, St. Cloud, Fargo and Sioux Falls.

Ricker said the foundation has since awarded Quilts of Valor another $1,000 to continue the operation, which Caughey said continues to be critical with the situation in Minnesota.

“(The governor’s mandate) spurred some more requests,” Caughey said. “We had suspended making masks for a while. With the announcement, there’s a greater need. So we’re actually starting to cut masks and bag them up into kits. We’re going to start production again.”

Caughey said providing the masks is a chance to thank the state’s veterans for their service. “The armed servicesmembers have kept us safe from much greater threats,” she said. “So with this small measure we can do to keep them safe from this unseen threat is, gosh, I think it’s very apropos. Civilians are now being able to help veterans who kept us safe.”