GREENSBORO — Just before 10 a.m. each Sunday, they start lining up. Traveling on foot from nearby streets or via car from more far-flung neighborhoods, people of all ages make their way to the mask tree in Sunset Hills.
Beverly Ramsey — the woman behind the mask tree — emerges from her home with a box full of fabric masks, each encased in a Ziploc bag. She and her partner, Lea Popielinski, tear strips of duct tape and attach the bags to the bark of a large tree between their sidewalk and street. On the driveway, strips of the silver tape indicate socially distanced standing points for the line, and smaller bags containing child-sized masks are displayed on the pavement.
With the COVID-19 pandemic, face masks have become a necessary accessory for many as they venture out beyond the confines of their homes. After being laid off from her job as a pre-K teacher due to the pandemic, Ramsey started sewing masks.
“I needed an outlet,” she says. “Everybody’s feeling all this anxiety about things that are going on, and one thing we can control is (wearing a mask). I also have a little bit of sewing skills, so it’s a creative outlet and also a way to ease my anxiety. I feel like I’m doing something.”
During the week, Ramsey travels to stay with her 79-year-old mother, Susan Foard, in Virginia. Foard, who taught Ramsey to sew, joins her in creating masks. They use a variety of cotton fabrics — including vintage patterns and handmade tie-dyed textiles created by Penn State student and Grimsley High grad Gillian Mostofsky — and Ramsey repurposes unwanted patterned leggings she purchases online in bulk to make the ear straps.
“An ugly pair of leggings becomes a cute ear strap that’s comfortable,” she says. “Wearing a mask takes getting used to, so I want to make it as comfortable as possible.”
After making masks for family and friends, Ramsey felt a calling do more. A descendant of Gov. John Motley Morehead — the state’s 29th governor and among the most influential figures in North Carolina history — Ramsey says she looks to her heritage when things get tough.
“When times are hard for me, I look back on how my ancestors handled things,” she says. “They were always tied to the Greensboro community, they reached out, they did things like create a school for the deaf, and they helped children who were blind. So when I feel a little bit lost myself, that’s where I look for inspiration, and I think, ‘What would they do in a time like this?’”
About a month ago, Ramsey started making masks to share with the community, sealing them in bags and hanging them on the tree in her yard each Sunday. Neighbors posted about the mask tree on NextDoor, a popular neighborhood-based social networking site, and suddenly Ramsey’s masks became a hit.
That first Sunday she put out about 50 masks, and three weeks later, she distributed 150 masks. The distribution begins at 10 a.m., and the masks are usually gone by 1 p.m. She says she’ll continue making masks as long as they’re needed.
“It’s a way to connect with my community,” she says. “It’s a way to reach out. I think if you show a little bit of kindness, sometimes that multiplies.”
Ramsey has seen that kindness reciprocated, too. Many who pick up masks bring donations of fabric, money for supplies and even cleaning products.
“I love how it’s not just me doing this thing, it’s us, it’s this community,” she says. “It’s just growing and growing, and it’s a way that everybody gets both inspiration and face masks to keep us safe in this difficult time.”