The Graves County Courthouse after the tornadoes
The Graves County Courthouse after the tornadoes (photo by Berry Craig)

Masks for Mayfield

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I am a resident of Graves County, Kentucky, and Mayfield is our county seat. Most people have seen by now the total devastation of the center of town and the iconic court house from the tornado on Dec. 10th. Graves County is geographically very large, and I live in one of the corners of the county, a pretty good distance from Mayfield, which is in the center, so our family escaped the storm. We had rain but not even any significant wind.

Other than making donations, we began looking for ways to help once the initial waves of volunteers began to slack off and it would be easier to navigate in town. Before then, we didn’t want to be in the way.

Then just before Christmas, the city announced an “Operation Christmas Tuesday” asking for volunteers to come and deliver supplies to residents and toys to children. My husband and I know that the individual we care for in Adult Foster Care loves to give things to people, and he had just gotten his new Santa hat and beard, so we got in the van and set out to help. They gave us some basic supplies such as pre-packaged meals, bottled water, canned food, and toilet paper, and assigned a street. We quickly determined that not only had they sent three other volunteers to the same street, but I knew this was not a particularly vulnerable neighborhood socioeconomically.

I began doing GOTV work in 2008 for the Obama campaign in the primary, and was assigned to be captain for Graves County. That was my first engagement beyond being a voter and rare donor, and it started me on my current path of being politically engaged, volunteering for local and state and national campaigns, and helping start our local Four Rivers Indivisible chapter. It also taught me a lot about the neighborhoods in the city of Mayfield, and the more vulnerable neighborhoods where people are struggling. This was in addition to the fact that I worked as a home health speech-language therapist for many years with all ages, mostly children, in this town and surrounding areas, and developed a lot of knowledge of connecting with these people and families. I also worked later at the hospital in Mayfield, the Jackson Purchase Medical Center. About 90% of those I served relied primarily on Medicaid for their therapy services.

So, on that Tuesday before Christmas, I told my spouse I knew better streets we could go to, and we changed our plan and took off. Only a few people needed water (tons of cases on porches all over town), very few were interested in the meals and canned goods, but boy did people want toilet paper! We started taking notes of what people needed so that when we went back for more supplies we could meet those needs. We found out that some things would need to be picked up at a different distribution center, so we began a series of trips back and forth after going door-to-door and talking to people. We wrote down where there were kids in houses and their ages so we could get toys. The National Guard volunteers also gave us some addresses in random neighborhoods for targeted deliveries of specific things to a home. It went well, and we ended the day feeling we had accomplished a lot. And “Donnie Claus” loved his role handing things out:

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Something had been in my mind since before this trip. News stories were showing throngs of people crowded into supply centers, with very very few masks to be seen. Omicron is looming and local vaccination rates are still very low – 42.93% fully vaccinated (KY Vaccine Tracker). I feared a second disaster — a medical one — over the coming weeks. It was clear as we volunteered that masks were not on anyone’s radar for supplies that people need. I had a few extra KN95 masks in individual packages with us in the van, and decided to ask a couple of residents, whom I happened to know personally, if they wanted some of these masks. The answer was an enthusiastic “yes!” So the idea for the project “Masks for Mayfield” was born.

I am co-leader of our local Four Rivers Indivisible, and a member of the Mayfield-Graves NAACP. We had just started partnering the two groups in November for a rally on the Freedom to Vote Act, held outside Sen. McConnell’s Paducah office. I contacted their leader and asked if they would partner on this, and contacted a mask company to see if we could get some masks donated. The company (Well Before) said yes, but needed the tax exempt organization form, and it has taken awhile to get that ball rolling. I’m also not sure if they will donate since NAACP is a 501(c)4 and not a 501(c)3, meaning donations are not charitable/tax deductible. Meanwhile, I found out we can use our Distributed Fundraising funds from Indivisible, as we are doing community outreach.

But would people really want masks in this community where you see so few masks out in public? Where schools have gone back and forth on mask mandates and met some opposition? I needed to do a trial run in a neighborhood to find out.

We decided to focus on higher quality KN95/KF94 masks, since many experts are recommending people upgrade to those. I think vulnerable people deserve to have these despite the masks being somewhat higher cost. I had some already at home we had stored for awhile, and meanwhile I had gotten some other brands I liked better. So I set off with masks, clipboard, and data sheet, and talking points with information. I planned to also assess if there were other needs and thought I would run to the distribution center for anyone that didn’t have transportation.

I was amazed at the response. I picked two streets that cross each other that are in a vulnerable, multi-racial neighborhood, but mostly white. People were very enthusiastic and grateful to get the masks, and I had about an 80% acceptance rate from the people who were home. I was able to distribute 108 masks in a couple of hours, allowing plenty of time for conversations with individuals who needed to talk about their experiences with this disaster. Each individual in the home was given a set of 4 masks, although I only had a few small adult sets and no children sizes. (We have now ordered some of those with new donations.) They all seemed to understand the instructions for rotation to make the masks last a longer time. One woman said excitedly, “Oh, I can use these when I go to work!”

We are now printing up some cards to hand out with the masks that will have our organization names/logos on the front, and instructions and the Graves County Emergency Management Center hotline phone number on the back. We will also print this in Spanish and Somali. There is a small, transient population of Somali residents that mostly come to work in the poultry plant, and one of my neighborhood sources says there are some still here, although another source said he had not seen them in his extensive volunteering at the distribution center.

We have also gathered and compiled a one-page list of resources and phone numbers, and some basic information relating to FEMA and some other resources, and will have Spanish translation of this also. This should help those who are still having trouble getting information. The Graves County Emergency Response Center is providing a lot of help that people may not be aware of, from giving needy people fuel for generators to delivering supplies to those without transportation, to paying for storage for renters forced to leave their residence. They are working on getting some acreage prepared and up and going for temporary housing.

On my trial run I learned that some people may have cell service but still not be able to access information on the internet on their phones; they can only text or make calls. I learned that no one on those streets needed supplies, at least that day; what they were really interested in was the masks. People were kind, appreciative, and while I had one man that wanted to talk for an extended time about all his suspicions relating to the vaccines, big bad Pharma (well, okay, a point of agreement!) and masks, he did want to have a set of masks. No one brought up politics; it was all about how people were coming together and appreciation for all the help Mayfield is getting.

Volunteers in our Indivisible group are stepping up. I have the clipboards, data sheets, and maps for targeted neighborhoods, and am just waiting on the first order of masks, the info cards, and the resource sheets, and we will be ready to go. I haven’t done any door-to-door work since COVID hit, so this feels good and so much like doing voter canvassing that I love and have missed doing. I also hope that our project gets some media attention so that masking up comes to the attention of people in the community.

We will still be needing more masks, and all donations to our ActBlue distributed fundraising page will go to purchasing masks at this time. I hope that some of you can donate! You can donate here:

Thank you all for reading!

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Written by Leslie McColgin, one of the leaders of Four Rivers Indivisible.

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