As people around the country follow stay-at-home orders to slow the spread of coronavirus, many are driven to find new ways to help.

Nathan and Meaghan Sekinger of Stafford County are in that group. They’ve created a 3D printer farm in their basement to crank out masks and face shields by the hundreds.

They’ve enlisted more than 100 others to do the same, and together they could end up topping out at more than 1,000 pieces of PPE for doctors, nurses, first responders and nursing homes.

For their time, caring and dedication to helping others in this critical time, I am honoring them as Hometown Heroes.

The couple was nominated by a handful of readers. Most pointed to the way the grassroots effort has become a collaboration between educators, friends and family.

Nathan Sekinger, the librarian at T. Benton Gayle Middle School in Stafford, said he and wife Meaghan have gotten more than they’ve given in the effort that started March 14.

“Our big takeaway, after initially feeling somewhat isolated from the people we love and care about, is that this project has given us an increased sense of belonging and community in our area and region,” he said.

So just how did the educators—who for weeks have been juggling telework and home-schooling their 7- and 9-year-olds—happen to find themselves building a factory in their basement?

Nathan said it all started when he and Meaghan, a former Stafford teacher who’s now the Training and Technical Assistance Center coordinator at George Mason University, saw a request on a donation website for a 3D “Montana Mask” for use at Stafford Hospital.

“Once the virus hit, we’d been feeling an overwhelming sense of concern and helplessness, a desire to help the community in some way,” said Meaghan Sekinger. “We brainstormed for a while about different things, tossing around different ideas. But this one really struck Nathan as something we could do.”

That’s partly because the school library where Nathan works has three 3D printers that the couple got permission to bring home for the mask-making effort. Calls to other Stafford librarians and requests to school administrators to borrow other school 3D printers pretty quickly brought in more.

“By the time we got to spring break, we had eight printers running in our basement,” said Meaghan. “We basically made a makeshift factory by setting the printers up on end tables, coffee tables and some other tables we borrowed.”

There are now 12 3D printers turning out components in the Sekingers’ basement, with another 10 printers working elsewhere in the community network to make pieces of masks and face shields.

Nathan said the printers use strings of a filament, a plant-based plastic polymer that is melted and applied layer by layer to create what’s being made.

The biggest piece in the assembly line is the framework of the mask, which takes roughly five hours to “print.” The Sekingers have also been making two other mask components: a small “filter holder” that filtering material fits into, and an “ear protector” that keeps the elastic band off a wearer’s ears.

One of the advantages of the mask design is that it only requires a small piece of the filter, allowing six times as many masks to be made with the hard-to-find material.

Seeing a need for face shields, the Sekingers found a printable design with a flexible top and a holder at the bottom. Add transparency film and a button to hold the elastic and, voila, you’ve got a face shield.

Nathan said they got designs from a website that distributes codes that get popped into the printers on a memory card.

“It takes a little bit of juggling, because it’s not really plug-and-play,” he said.

Meaghan said the entire Sekinger family has been on quite the schedule. She and her husband telework from home during the day while Nathan juggles home-schooling and communicating with his students and teachers.

“The trickiest part of the process has been the time it takes to assemble the pieces and being able to get the raw materials,” she said, adding that the masks require weather stripping on the edges and elastic around the back.

But a funny thing happened to solve both problems. The couple put out the word they could use donations of materials and created a wish list on Amazon. Friends, family, co-workers and others began to purchase and deliver materials. Others have volunteered to help with assembling the pieces, with the owner and staff at Stafford’s Potomac Point Winery stepping in with a major commitment.

“And we do now have some Stafford schools and community partners who are printing in their homes, as well,” said Nathan. “And some of the folks at the Central Rappahannock Regional Library are now making face shields.”

Stories about their effort on Washington television stations have brought in many more requests for masks and face shields. Virginia long-term care facilities have asked for 900 masks, while Westmoreland County has requested 200 masks for county staff, correctional workers and police.

“And we’ve had lots of individual requests from individual nurses and crews from Mary Washington and Stafford hospitals and others,” said Meaghan.

The Sekingers have a special email address for medical personnel looking for PPE and anyone interested in helping: makethemasksfredva@gmail.com.

Meaghan said because their children are young, she and Nathan try to keep discussions about the virus and its effects age appropriate, and for safety’s sake, have made the basement off limits to them.

“It will be interesting to see the impact on them when they’re older and they can understand what was really going on in the basement,” she said.

Rob Hedelt: 540/374-5415

rhedelt@freelancestar.com

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