Rowing to Dunkirk, One Stitch at a Time


In the late spring of 1940 in WWII, German forces closed in on Allied troops backed up against the beaches of Dunquerque, France. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill expected that a calculated evacuation could rescue maybe 45,000 of the nearly 400,000 troops. Large Royal Navy vessels positioned themselves in the English Channel, but couldn’t get close enough to the shallow beaches to reach the stranded soldiers.

The Allies put out a call for smaller boats to carry the troops from shore to the ships, summoning a ragtag but unstoppable force of pleasure vessels, ferries, fishing boats and cruisers who made trip after trip from the beach to the ships. In all, some 860 vessels rescued 338,226 soldiers from May 26 to June 4, 1940. It shouldn’t have been able to have been done. But it was.


The “Dunkirk Spirit” is the indominable spirit of individuals banding together to fight  overwhelming forces, against all odds. Waco is having its own Dunkirk moment.

But instead of small boats banding together to rescue soldiers off the beach, it’s a small army of home seamstresses joining forces to throw a lifeline to a community embattled by the corona virus but fighting with inadequate resources of personal protective equipment (PPE). One national estimate calculates that in this global pandemic, medical facilities are using 20 to 30 times the PPE of normal operations each day, mounting into thousands needed to protect medical workers and first responders who are exposed to the virus each and every day they go to work; they are reusing their N-95 medical masks sometimes up to a week at a time. Social workers, senior citizens in nursing homes and other essential workers are also at risk and don’t have a prayer at getting any kind of masks in a critical national shortage.

Matea Perales

Idea generator Matea Perales

Matea Perales has been a professional seamstress in Waco for the past 40 years, and when she saw the desperate need for face masks in the community in the growing COVID crisis, enlisted the help of daughter Reyna Perales Reyes – a licensed vocational nurse and social media marketing strategist —  who created a Facebook page that within 48 hours had 700 followers and a group of sewers who made more than 350 face masks.

Less than three weeks later, Waco Masks Seamstress for COVID is coordinating the efforts of more than 500 home seamstresses with the goal of sewing 10,000 or more fabric masks, with more than 5,000 delivered as of April 9. The Facebook page now has more than 1,000 followers.


Group founder Reyna Perales Reyes

The group reached out to Waco city leaders, the McLennan County Medical Alliance, Waco Family Health Center, McLennan County Emergency Operations Center, the Texas Medical Alliance, and local chief medical CEOs and administrators.

They found a central collection place through the generosity of Action Rental Center (ARC) in Waco, where sewers can drop off contributions from 9-12 every weekday, and the masks are washed and dried, sorted and bundled for distribution requests.


Masks in the washer before distribution to partners




The group is now called Waco Masks Seamstress for COVID, C-19 Community Partners Coalition Members to reflect their collaborative status with 20 community partners.

Recipient organizations include the Lacy Lakeview Police Department, Heart of Texas Fire Corps, Visiting Angels, Caritas Food Pantry, Allergy and Asthma Care of Waco, the Salvation Army Waco, Heartis Senior Living, Westview Manor and Rehabilitation Center and Friends for Life, among many others.

A You Tube video on the Facebook page gives step-by-step directions in making either flat pleated masks with either elastic ear loops or ties, or more complicated cone-shaped masks with a wire nosepiece.


The central collection at Action Rental Center in Waco, where volunteers sort and intake masks, preparing packets to distribute from coalition partner requests

Volunteers running the operation and those delivering masks practice social distancing, where donors drive up one car at a time to make a deposit in a basket outside. A volunteer standing at a safe distance records the donor’s name, email and phone, and number and type of masks.


Completed masks at the central collection center

By the time a week had passed after the initial Facebook posting, quarter-inch flat elastic was practically impossible to come by and home sewers were reaching into long-forgotten sewing boxes to find tightly-woven cotton material, the preferred fabric. Community retail establishments quickly joined in: JoAnn Fabric stores stepped in to donate fabric, elastic and bias tape; mega-chain local grocery store HEB pitched in large Ziplock bags to assemble kits. Now volunteers can pick up pre-made kits, with fabric and elastic pre-cut for 25 masks, at the central collection center. Another problem solved.

The Facebook page has blossomed with comments and tips on where to find supplies. One member listed the number of her father’s sewing machine repair shop, which also sold materials. JoAnn Fabrics offers online shopping with curbside delivery – after I broke several sewing machine needles in early tries with too-thick pleating, I ordered a dozen more with fabric and picked them up the next day. Recipients wrote in to thank the organization.


“On behalf of Caritas Food Pantry of Waco, I want to thank you for thinking of us and donating masks for our staff. As we continue to serve those in need in our community, your masks will keep us as safe as possible. God bless each and every one of you and keep you safe.”

“I work for Meals on Wheels Waco and today we received these masks for our staff – thank you to the loving hands that made them! I couldn’t sew fast enough to make one for everyone at work, so your donation is much appreciated!


My dining room sewing center

I’m just one of the many, doing what little that I can do to help out in this time of crisis. It makes me feel useful. It makes me feel part of something much bigger than myself.


Mask production in my dining room

Sitting at a sewing machine a few hours a day is nothing compared to the grueling shifts our medical professionals and caregivers are putting in at great risk to their and their families’ health. I can do this, for as long as it takes.

My dining room is a sewing center – hey, I’m not having any dinner parties these days – and to date I’ve made 75 facemasks. I’ve contributed to the community cause, but last week was sidelined providing individual requests, mostly to friends’ adult kids who are essential workers but can’t find masks anywhere. They’re all important.

Rosie Tshirt

We don’t each have a global mission. Or maybe we do, but it’s only by banding our motley selves together and finding a willing leader – like Reyna Perales Reyes – to step up, marshal the forces and provide direction. Thanks, Reyna, and your group of first lieutenants, whose names I don’t even know. Thanks to all you fellow volunteers sewing your hearts out. Thanks for letting me be a part of this.

We’re just rowing to Dunkirk, each in our tiny boat, but together we make a huge difference.


Susan Bean Aycock, embracingthechaos, Easter Sunday April 12, 2020

Past Easter blogs include Purple Reign and A Great Good Friday. Another life in Oaxaca, Mexico.

Waco Masks Seamstress for COVID, posted March 28, 2020: Who are We?

We are Waco Masks Seamstress (WMS) for COVID; a community volunteer driven group initiated as a response to the shortage of masks in Central Texas.

We have grown to over 900 members strong, with over 70 seamstresses and over 20 community coalition partners driving the effort to fill the need of masks for providers, patients, and other various caregivers throughout.

We are designated as a partner and the point of distribution for masks and various donated supplies for delivery to providers per the McLennan County Emergency Operations Center (EOC) as advised by the EOC.

WMS for COVID is an official McLennan-Waco Emergency Operations Center Partner and a COVID-19 Community Partners Coalition Founding Member.


As the entire organization combines the work of many individuals, so does this blog article:

  • Logo by MediaKampS.d. Macasil, COVID-19 Community Partners Coalition Member
  • Much information and photo of Matea Perales taken from the article “Mask project takes off as Waco volunteers chip in during health crisis,” by Tommy Witherspoon for the Waco Herald Tribune, 3-23-20
  • Facebook page photos by various members

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