A St. Patrick’s Day phone call was when the COVID-19 pandemic really hit home for Debie McDonald.

“I got a call from our [hospital’s] pandemic expert, and she said, ‘I need help. I’m pretty sure we’re going to be short on supplies,’” said McDonald, who is on the Patient Advocacy Board of AdventHealth Celebration, a hospital in Celebration, Florida. “I hung up the phone and made calls for about the next 11 hours.”

Utilizing connections made during her more than two decades of community volunteer work, the 1979 Virginia Tech graduate quickly rallied supplies, including goggles and bleach, as well as a fleet of people willing to craft much-needed cloth facial masks.

“I had 22 sewers respond in a day. I emailed a pattern out and said, let’s get this going,” McDonald said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends all people wear some sort of face covering when in public spaces during social distancing efforts related to COVID-19.

To date, the group she created, “Sewing for Life,” has completed more than 1,000 cloth masks, which were donated to churches, a community outreach program for low-income families, essential workforce members, and perhaps most importantly at this time, medical professionals.

“They’re on the front lines and they are under incredible stress,” McDonald said. “It’s really just a small thing we can do to help.”

McDonald and her family moved to central Florida following a 10-year stint as a stockbroker in Colorado. They have lived in Celebration since it was established in 1996. During that time she’s served the community in a variety of ways, including serving on the Parent-Teacher Association, the Celebration Foundation Board, and the Osceola County Salvation Army Board. 

Woman and dog
Debie McDonald and her Goldendoodle, Rory, live in Celebration, Florida.

In 2017 she began serving on the Patient Advisory Board at AdventHealth Celebration. So far, more than 750 of the masks have gone to the hospital, where they will serve as an emergency backups during the pandemic.

“Debie and her team jumped in immediately in response to a need for personal protective equipment to support the hospital,” said Deborah Laughton, director of Professional Development and Clinical Excellence at AdventHealth Celebration. “She collaborated across a variety of groups to gather patterns, supplies, and to perfect the production of masks, while also helping get donations of face shields and cleaning chemicals. The hands, hearts, and strong commitment between the organization and the volunteers ensured readiness for our teams. AdventHealth Celebration is blessed to have such community leaders and volunteers.”

McDonald said the sewing group, which includes several furloughed costume creators from the nearby amusement parks, now gets requests for masks from both individuals and groups on a daily basis.

“Our original goal was 1,000, and once we pass that, we’re just going to keep going,” she said.

That drive to help others is something McDonald credits to both her family upbringing and her time in Blacksburg.

“My joy comes from serving others and to me that is the most important thing that I do, whatever I do in life,” she said. “I’m just very grateful Tech helped instill that in me. I’m very honored to have graduated from there.”

-- Written by Travis Williams