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Retired teacher turned mask maker finds herself busier and busier

Thanks to the coronavirus, old hobby becomes new cause.
MJ Baker, 63, makes protective face masks from her studio in the cottage house behind her 1921 bungalow.
MJ Baker, 63, makes protective face masks from her studio in the cottage house behind her 1921 bungalow. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Apr. 6, 2020
Updated May 15, 2020

Fred Rogers once said: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.'”

An occasional series.

In fifth grade, none of the other kids believed her when MJ Baker told them she had made the skirt she was wearing. They searched for the manufacturer’s tag.

In high school, during home economics, the other girls made aprons, but Baker worked on a dress that she describes as form-fitting and racy. “I made all of my prom dresses, which was pretty fun,” she said.

Now, the 63-year-old retired schoolteacher from Lansing, Mich., is putting her talents to use again. She is making masks.

“I was thinking mostly for my parents,” said Baker, who lives in St. Petersburg. “At least I could help keep them protected.” At the time, they were still going grocery shopping.

Baker put a call out to friends and fellow artists with the Artists Enclave of Historic Kenwood, and donated materials started rolling in. Boxes of thread, pounds of fabric and yards of elastic.

When she started making masks on March 19, it took her all day to make about 25. Now, she’s producing 10 every hour and a half, working from her studio in the cottage house behind her 1921 bungalow.

The masks are two-ply, 100% cotton with an insert where she installs a hepa filter made from vacuum cleaner bags.

She gave a batch to a friend who is a nurse at St. Anthony’s Hospital.

“She just cried, because she was so grateful,” Baker said. “She was making her own masks with coffee filters.”

She has since given away about 65 masks to hospital workers in St. Petersburg and sent more to a maternity ward in Tampa. She also mailed a batch to her sister’s nonprofit in Silver Spring, Md.

“I'm here all day,” she said. “I haven’t gone anywhere for weeks.”

As for parents, they were happy for the masks, but they’re unlikely to use them. These days, they’re not going past their front yard.

Do you know a Helper? Contact jpendygraft@tampabay.com.

Read other stories in this series:

Butcher John Riesebeck is embracing a family tradition

SPC professor creates 3D-printed face shields for medical workers

Isolation, frustration inspired action for Gulfport woman

• • •

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