AIR’s Megan Eccleston Launches Find the Helpers, Builds a “Mask Empire” for COVID-19 Response
When the COVID-19 crisis hit, AIR’s Megan Eccleston plunged unexpectedly into a once-in-a-lifetime extracurricular challenge: organizing a grassroots volunteer initiative to help hospitals desperate for face masks and other supplies. With her professional expertise—and a can-do spirit—Megan has built a multi-state coalition of thousands of volunteers that has delivered nearly one million masks to hospitals in just three months.
As a project associate at AIR, Megan specializes in collecting, organizing, and tracking data from multiple sources, and managing the recruitment and logistics that go into survey administration. Quarantined and stir-crazy in her Michigan home, she noticed a surge in social media posts about face masks, both from people volunteering to make masks and from health care workers reporting supply shortages and asking for help. “I thought, I don’t sew,” she said. “I’m a project manager.”
It turns out that Megan’s project management skills were exactly what was needed. “The volunteers and health care people weren’t really talking to each other,” she said. So she started a Facebook group, West Michigan Open Source Medical Supplies, to connect health care providers with volunteers eager to help. Within a week, this group had 500 members.
As word spread, more people offered whatever resources they had on hand, including “scraps of fabric from their grandmother’s quilting stash” for mask-making and then 3D printers and laser and rotary cutters for crafting plastic face shields and visors. A local canvas shop that normally makes boat covers used its equipment to cut fabric into mask kits. Later, a mention of volunteer efforts in Rolling Stone inspired bands to donate T-shirts from canceled summer concerts for mask-making. “Everybody just raised their hands,” Megan said.
Volunteers from United Way offered to pick up and drop off masks and other supplies from homes and businesses. “We set up a series of drop sites at fire departments and churches and homes, where we can do no-contact drop-offs, pool the masks together, and take 100 or 500, and now 1,000 of them to one place at a time,” Megan said. Around Michigan, there are now 21 large “drop zone leaders,” where supplies are housed and prepared for delivery to health care facilities, and dozens of smaller drop sites.
Broadening the Response
Megan organized the effort using digital tools she created, including databases, forms, and surveys for volunteers, health care facilities, and, now, state coordinators. Megan’s AIR colleagues created an interactive map of coronavirus hotspots and health care facility requests. Recognizing that these tools could support networks of helpers nationwide, Megan connected with like-minded organizations, including Illinois and North Carolina Face Mask Warriors groups, Sew You Care, and 3Dc19, a group that makes 3D-printed face shields, visors, and “ear savers”—a quick innovation by one company to alleviate discomfort from the elastic on masks worn all day.
Together, these collaborating groups launched Find the Helpers, a nonprofit that offers a collection of digital tools and resources to capture and respond to urgent needs for supplies. “The Find the Helpers name came from the Mr. Rogers quote about scary times: ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” Find the Helpers now has 65,000 people nationwide in its database—and it’s expanding rapidly.
Megan is taking the intense whirlwind of activity in stride. “My husband is hilarious about this,” she said. “He says, ‘I didn’t realize you were going to build a mask empire while you were in quarantine.’ And I say, ‘I honestly didn’t intend to.’ But it’s its own beast and it continues to grow. And there’s an amazing network of people who are now my lifelong friends.”
While Find the Helpers and its crew of volunteers are still in the thick of COVID-19 activities, Megan and her collaborators are already thinking about how the organization could respond to future crises, such as natural disasters and local emergencies. Already, the group is raising funds to support Michigan flood relief. “Most people don’t know how to help or where to help or who to ask,” she said. “We really want to be that for them. People want to help their local community.”