Editor’s note: This is one in a periodic series called Stepping Up, highlighting moments of compassion, duty and community in uncertain times. Have a story we should tell? Send it via email to newstips@ with the subject “Stepping Up.”
While the Sisters of Charity live inside the confines of the Washington Corrections Center for Women (WCCW) in Gig Harbor, they’re providing plenty of help for those on the outside in the fight against the coronavirus.
The group, formed about 20 years ago at the Corrections Center, with many serving life sentences, make items from donated materials for about 30 different charities. South King Fire & Rescue needed protective gowns for an anticipated surge in coronavirus cases this fall and winter, and the group was happy to help. Not only have they made 700 gowns for South King Fire & Rescue, they also made 300 for the Gig Harbor Fire Department, with 600 more on order.
“I think this project meant so much because it was a call to action and an opportunity for them to be part of their community despite the walls,” said Carrie Hesch, WCCW’s recreation and athletic director. “They are absolutely thrilled to be able to do something for the community and stay busy.”
Lt. Greg Willett, one of the members of the South King Fire & Rescue COVID-19 group, reached out to Hesch about the possibility of getting some help from the women at the corrections center. It worked better than he could have imagined.
“We worked together as a team to produce the best we could to help, and it all came together,” said a member of the group who is not named at the request of the WCCW. “We heard of the need, and it happened. It gives us the opportunity to be a part of something positive and contribute to the community.”
There are 10 women in the Sisters’ governing body, and they run the program, while Hesch oversees it. The gown project was perfect for their skill set. Firefighter Jim Wilson, who designed the gowns and had been sewing them with his wife, made a video of a prototype for the group.
“I gave it to one of the women who also worked for Correctional Industries (a program for inmates to gain work experience), and she’s brilliant,” Hesch said. “She can just look at something and make it work. We couldn’t have them come in and show us, but she was able to figure it out through a phone call (and the video), and we just began the process.”
Said Willett: “She just ran with our design. That whole group has been nothing but super-enthusiastic and super-supportive. It is all volunteer, nothing is forced on them, and they just ran with it.”
Lowe’s donated Tyvek, a fabric used in protective gear, and the group used an assembly-line process that allowed workers to keep socially distant; two groups of 15 worked in rotating shifts.
“There was the cutting of the pattern, the cutting of the material, the sewing of the arms, doing the straps and sewing them on and we had a folding table,” Hesch said. “One of them came up with the idea of folding them so they would fit into a gear bag perfectly.”
They were able to churn out one gown about every 13 minutes, depending on the skill level of the seamstress. In two weeks, the first 700 were made. Then came the 300 for Gig Harbor. The group is also making masks for the incarcerated and has produced more than 4,000.
While South King Fire serves the communities of Federal Way, Auburn and Des Moines, the group also wanted to make gowns for the nearby first responders of Gig Harbor Fire Department. South King Fire was fine with that and let the group use some of its Tyvek to make 300 gowns for Gig Harbor.
“We respond to 911 calls to the prison on a very regular basis, and so they were super excited to provide us with something we need as a thank you,” said Gig Harbor Fire Lt. Jason Black. “They do an amazing job at what they do. We are super excited to be partnering with them, and I think they, given their circumstance, are super excited to be able to give back as well.”
Willett had not heard of the Sisters of Charity before this project, but now he is a big fan.
“Carrie (Hesch) and everyone stepped up,” said Willett, who was also in charge of making sure the gowns met standards set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Once they got going, it was quick. They were making a lot of gowns each day, and working 10 hours a day. They are very dedicated. One of the nice surprises is that when the gowns came out, they were all neatly folded. I just figured they would all be rolled up, but they went the extra mile. It really looks like they came out of a factory.”
Before the coronavirus, South King County Fire & Rescue would get its gowns from a factory.
“Normally, we would use medical-grade Tyvek suits that came from a distributor, but these are not normal times,” Willett said. “The gowns (from the group), are really decently made and it’s kind of too bad it’s disposable material, because they did a really good job.”