Killing time by helping to save lives: Palm Harbor sisters have made hundreds of masks during the COVID-19 quarantine

Sisters Lilly and Laura Bell of Palm Harbor began making masks while under quarantine during the coronavirus pandemic. According to their mom, Kathy Bell, the girls have produced more than 300 masks for friends, family, teachers, neighbors and strangers and redirected nearly a $1000 in donations to area nonprofit Feeding the Fosters since late March.

PALM HARBOR — Many kids have had a tough time during the coronavirus quarantine. Being kept in-doors with no contact with friends for weeks on end can be challenging for anyone, adults included.

At a time when families have been scrambling to come up with ways to fill the downtime during the lockdown, the Bell sisters of Palm Harbor found a new pastime, and purpose, during the pandemic.

Over the past few weeks, East Lake Middle School students Laura, 14, and Lilly Bell, 12, along with help from a few friends and their mom, Kathy Bell, have produced hundreds of handmade cloth masks for friends, neighbors, teachers, special needs students, businesses and total strangers in an effort to stay busy and help others.

“While we were in quarantine, we saw other people making masks, and I knew they sold kits at Joann’s (craft store),” Kathy Bell said recently. “I asked Laura if she was interested in sewing and she said yes, so I bought a sewing machine, started ordering fabric and elastic and here we are!”

Bell said Laura immediately took to the task, watching several YouTube videos that greatly improved her sewing skills, while her younger sister and friend Jolie Garry pitched in to help assemble and package the 100% cotton, dual layer, reusable masks. She noted that once the news spread through their neighborhood and circle of friends about what the girls were doing, the orders started flowing in.

“First, a small business reached out and placed an order, and then a neighbor’s mom who lives in New York and couldn’t go out lost her paper mask, so we sent her one or ours,” Bell recalled.

She said after the girls hosted a virtual mask-making session for the media April 15, the requests really ramped up. “After it went on the news, people started asking how to get them and we’re like, we’re just a small group of girls here, not a big company! But we’ve been trying our best to keep up with the de-mand.”

In a May 7 email, Bell estimated the girls had made more than 300 masks to date, with dozens more on order, and she noted they formed partnerships with local businesses, including Winn-Dixie, and area nonprofit Feeding the Fosters to help provide masks, meals and donations.

“We’ve given all the monetary donations we’ve received to Feeding the Fosters,” she said of the Pinellas County nonprofit organization that provides home-cooked meals to foster families. “I think we’ve donat-ed close to $1,000 so far, and twice we’ve partnered with Greek City Café in Clearwater to donate 50 masks to their first 50 customers and they donated 50 meals to Feeding the Fosters. So, it’s been a real nice collaboration with local businesses and nonprofit organizations.”

With school, as well as several components of the statewide quarantine, set to end in May, Kathy Bell said she wasn’t sure how long her daughters would continue pursue their new hobby.

“Right now, they’re still in school, and there’s still a need for masks,” she said. “But I don’t know how long they want to keep doing it going forward.”

Laura Bell said she plans to keep making masks for the foreseeable future.

“Probably for a few more months, depending on how long people need them,” she said. “It’s not that hard to do and it passes the time when you’re sitting home doing nothing, and it makes me feel really good to know I get to do something for my friends and family.”