May 28, 2020 | By Laura Kepner
Eckerd College Theatre Professor
Uses Her Skills to Help Medical Workers and More
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Eckerd College Theatre Professor Jessica Thonen has designed scenery and costumes in Europe, Off-Broadway and throughout the United States. Her work has included dance, performance art and anime Shakespeare. She’s worked at Radio City Music Hall and the Kodak Theatre. She has painted scenery, designed and constructed incredible stages, and created costumes for many, many, many performances. Thonen loves puppetry, the tradition of African dance and creating masks — traditional masks, and now, masks to help people stay safe.
“I teach design and technology at Eckerd College Theatre,” she says. “I don’t normally teach online. Right now, as faculty members, we are trying to take this very hands-on class and figure out a remote learning circumstance.”
Thonen had already taught her students to sew before the Covid-19 pandemic impacted how they could learn. “We have soldiered through,” she says. “I had already taught them the basics. “
When Eckerd started virtual classes after an extended spring break, Thonen had to figure out how to teach a very hands-on, in-person technique in a new way. At the same time, there were stories all over TV and the Internet about medical workers in the Tampa Bay area not having enough protective supplies.
She and friends Hope Griffin and Kelly Thompson formed Hope for Tampa Bay. They made an instructional video and created a Facebook group called Masks for Medical Workers in Tampa Bay. “We wanted to send what doctors and nurses need. Then we made the video to share with our community. The whole thing started with a couple of us. We knew how to sew,“ Thonen explains.
Fortunately, she had just trained a whole team of students how to sew. Thonen explained her project and offered them volunteer work making masks. “They were amazing. We also had students in Georgia making masks.”
The group had so many people inspired to sew. Thonen made masks every time she had a few moments to spare. “From 6:00 a.m. to 8 a.m. and after 9 p.m. I was available to make masks. After the first couple weeks, we figured out how to run the group.”
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Like people throughout the world wanting the help but not certain how, Tampa Bay residents were beginning to feel helpless. They’d done enough puzzles and taken plenty of walks.
“I would talk to my husband about people complaining they had run out of Netflix,” she says. “I took a day off and made 20 masks that day. This is no shade to people baking bread and running out of Netflix.”
Norton Healthcare Systems in Kentucky reached out to use the video. “She is using that to teach people in Kentucky to make masks for five different hospitals in Louisville,” Thonen says. “It is amazing how a couple small acts can influence people all over the country. “
The project has given her students a life lesson, too, because they are being forced to use what they already have. “They’re looking at an impossible situation and finding a way through. Rather than going out and purchasing the perfect supplies, they have to look around the room instead of running to the store,” Thonen says. “It is to their benefit. They are figuring out how to make ends meet in the real world, which is closer to the theatre world. You may not have the perfect things but you figure out how to make the magic happen.
“We have been training for this situation all our lives. In theatre we have all these quick changes.”
The group has gone from a few friends to about 100 strong and includes people who sew and people who can’t sew, but can put together kits to pass out to people who can, and there are people who volunteer to drive.
“We realized someone’s life really did depend on us sewing quickly and making appropriate materials. We know hospitals need our support but there are also nursing homes and assisted living homes, mental health facilities and homeless shelters. There are people on the front lines facing Covid-19, and also people in disadvantaged situations who need protecting. My students are making masks for all over the country. They are using all these hand sewing skills to make masks and getting them where they need to be.“
Thonen said that after two weeks, over 10,000 masks were delivered. After that, they were turning out between one and two thousand masks a week.
“I don’t normally post on Facebook,” she admits, “but then I realized people did need to know someone is doing good out there. Even if you feel hopeless, there is something you can do through this.”
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