Members of the Labrie family wear some of the masks they’ve made to help medical workers combat the coronavirus. From left are Donna Crawford, Sherry Labrie, Violet Labrie, Dan Labrie and Caroline Labrie. Since starting the project last Thursday, the family and their friends have made more than 1,000 masks. Submitted photo

This is the time of year when Dan Labrie would usually don a mask and yell, “Play ball!”

With no baseball games to umpire due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Labrie is helping local medical personnel and first responders get masks that could help save their lives.

In less than a week, Labrie, his family and friends have sewn more than 1,000 face masks and donated them for local use through a program coordinated by Jo-Ann Fabrics and Crafts.

Labrie, 33, who is in his fifth year as an umpire with the Central Maine Board of Approved Baseball Umpires, dove into the project last week after his wife, Caroline, told him about the program set up by the national chain store.

“I’ve never sewn a day in my life,” Labrie said. “When I asked my mother (Sherry) to help me with shopping for a new sewing machine she looked at me like I had three heads. But I was very interested in doing anything I could to help out all of the first responders and the people on the front lines (battling the coronavirus).”

Since he has no games to umpire, Labrie, who works as facilities and transportation director for MSAD 52, has spent much of his free time sitting at his new Singer sewing machine and making masks deep into the night.

“It’s been tiring, for sure, but it’s very rewarding to see how you’re able to help and support the doctors and nurses and first responders in your community,” he said.

After receiving a 30-minute tutorial from his mother, who sewed the numbers onto his umpiring uniform, Labrie went to work on his first mask and completed it in about 45 minutes. Now he estimates it takes him no more than 10 minutes per mask, and that’s after learning how to do some alterations to help make the masks more comfortable.

“It’s like when you’re playing or umpiring sports, you just get into that rhythm,” said Labrie, who umpires at all youth levels and in men’s leagues and also is a football official. “I’ve come to gain quite a bit of respect for those machines, though, after sewing my fingers together and dodging flying needles the last few days.”

Members of the Labrie family started making masks for local medical workers combating the coronavirus last Thursday, and are now producing nearly 100 per day to be donated and distributed through a nationwide program started by Jo-Ann Fabrics and Crafts. From left are Donna Crawford, Sherry Labrie, Violet Labrie, Dan Labrie and Caroline Labrie. Submitted photo

Jo-Ann stores are giving away free kits containing enough thread, elastics, interfacing and fabric to make 10 masks per kit, which was sufficient for Dan and Caroline at first. As their sewing skills improved, and with family such as Dan’s aunt Donna Crawford joining in to help, they wanted to make more. But Jo-Ann limits the amount of free kits available due to overwhelming demand.

The Labries enlisted the help of a friend and fellow member of Grace Community Church in Auburn, Terry Maher, for more supplies to make more masks. Maher and her husband, Joe, own and operate Bags from Mars, a small stitching company in Lewiston.

“I have oodles and oodles and oodles of fabric that I’m able to cut from home,” said Maher, who estimated she’d cut enough fabric to make about 1,500 masks as of Tuesday afternoon.

Through donations from church members and friends who have heard about the project via social media, the Labries have been able to buy more materials and step up production in their Auburn home. With his mother and aunt helping out, the family is up to nearly 100 masks per day.

Labrie takes bags of masks his family has produced, rounds up more masks made by Maher and others, and drops them off at Jo-Ann’s Auburn store, which in turn makes them available for personnel from local hospitals, doctors offices and nursing homes to pick up and use for free. Labrie said employees have told him medical personnel typically wear them over their N95 Respirator masks to prolong the life of those higher quality, more expensive masks.

On Monday, UMPS CARE Charities, a nonprofit formed by Major League Baseball umpires, posted a story about Labrie’s efforts on its Facebook page, including a video of Labrie in action at the sewing machine while wearing his umpires mask and uniform. The post caught the attention of Ken Rosenthal, a nationally-known baseball writer for Fox Sports and The Athletic, who tweeted it out to his 1.1 million followers on Tuesday.

Labrie said he’d hoped he could inspire just one of his fellow umpires to make masks, but since his story went viral, friends he hasn’t heard from in years have contacted him offering to help.

“People across the country may see that and think, ‘I can do that.’ I mean, it’s taken me less than a week to learn,” he said.

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