Harriet Tom

Answering the Call

Harriet Tom, an instructional technician for the Fresno State food science and nutrition department, did not plan on starting a second profession when the COVID-19 pandemic hit the Central Valley in March.

However, once she saw the need for facial protection for front-line health care providers, she soon enlisted other volunteers with the same generosity to help make nearly 3,000 masks for area hospitals. 

The project began while she started making a handful of masks for family members. Her daughter, Andrea Tom, a Fresno State business alumna, posted a picture on Facebook about the family project that also included her brother, Nicholas, a Fresno State freshman kinesiology student.

They immediately got responses on social media asking about the pattern, so Harriet posted a weblink to the original template that she had altered. Next came requests from medical worker friends who asked if they could purchase multiple masks since none were available from their hospitals. 

“It took me a little time to get everything figured out,” said Tom, “partly since I honestly hadn’t sewn in years. But this is all about helping others, which is the same thing everyone else is thinking about right now. I was ready to do whatever I could do.”

Harriet reached out to Clarence Chiong, a Fresno State employee who manages the campus trademark licensing program. She asked if she could use one or two of his confiscated tshirts to test how the material might work for masks. 

Chiong had amassed hundreds of illegally-trademarked shirts that were intercepted from street vendors on Bulldog athletic game days. He gave her a few samples, and received permission soon after from campus administration to give her 300 shirts from his stockpile. Days later, he had coordinated the donation of more than 500 unused promotional shirts from the athletic department and 144 shirts from the Kennel Bookstore on campus. 

Staring at boxes and boxes of shirts, she put out a call for help that was answered by 25 family members, friends and fellow church members. Chiong and Jordan College Dean Dennis Nef also arranged for extra help from additional campus and church volunteers, respectively, including out-of-state help from as far away as Montana. 

Slightly more than a month later, the first shipment of 500 masks was delivered in early May to Community Regional Medical Center in downtown Fresno. 

The next shipment is scheduled to be delivered later in June to Valley Children’s Healthcare and Saint Agnes Medical Centerfollowed by other deliveries later in the summer to Kaiser Permanente Medical Center and a final Community Regional shipment.

Chiong also continues to help coordinate the local delivery and pick-up of new materials, and partially processed and completed masks.

Since volunteers have different equipment or areas of specialty, she helps to organize the preparation of the masks assigned between cutters and sewers.

The cutting process first involves creating a rectangle that is 9 wide by 6.5 inches tall. Additional strips that are 16 to 20 inches long and 1 1/2 inches wide are cut to create ties, since elastic was not available the first month of production.

She has also found that using the hem around the bottom the shirt, sleeves and collars can be converted into ties which are also more durable than elastic. Other necessary materials include thread and muslin interior fabric that helps make the masks more resistant to viral spread,  

“It wasn’t something that was hard to design,” said Tom, “anybody could do it. I looked at sizing specifications that Community Medical gave me, then I made a template. I try to use as much of the shirt material as possible, and very little gets wasted.”

With her template, she can produce up to seven masks per shirt, depending on the shirt fabric quality, size and cut. The athletic department and bookstore shirts have been easier to work with and have had better fabric, while counterfeit shirts often produce about half as many masks because of the lower quality material and screenprinting.

She then puts those materials into presorted bags to create 15 masks with thread and pre-cut muslin fabric for her sewing specialists. Those bags are delivered by Chiong and Tom to volunteers who call again for pick-up when each shipment is completed. 

Once she has all the materials cut out and laid out in front of her, she can finish a mask by herself in approximately 10 minutes. However, that doesn’t account for the prep time involved with cutting the pattern and ties for the shirt.

The challenge of such an effort would be daunting to some, but not to Tom who has spent approximately 30 hours a week organizing the project and making 200 masks herself since classes went virtual in late March. Boxes and bags of materials still crowd her living and dining room that was already in the process of being remodeled. Both of the sewing machines are still on the dining room table, and another card table serves as a cutting station. 

Both of her children, who are also living at home, still help out since her daughter, Andrea, finished her law degree at USC in the spring and works from home.

"Harriet is one of the university's best kept secrets," Chiong said. "I've known her family for a long time, and they're equally amazing. It's pretty special for all of us to be involved with this project, because the university is tied so closely to the community and vice versa."

Normally Tom would be busy during the spring semester helping supervise the culinology and food science classes that use the kitchen lab every weekday. She also normally helps faculty create recipes and class projects.

Although the in-person student labs were eliminated in late March, she has still been active on campus week creating fresh baked goods for the Gibson Farm Market. That commitment will continue throughout the summer, even though it’s not part of her normal workload. 

“Foot traffic was slow at the market for a while,” said Tom, “but they were still consistently selling out the baked products. I’ve tried to make it fun and utilize some of the fresh produce that’s in season on the farm, and they’re always asking for more items.”

That rotating list of pastries and goodies has included strawberry and sourdough bread loaves; strawberry or peach cobbler; and various quick breads.

Connecting her passion for Fresno State, the community and family is nothing new for Tom who received a B.S degree in home economics in 1981 and has worked on campus since 1986. 

After working initially at the campus bookstore, she has worked for the food science and nutrition department in a similar capacity since 1989. She has also been a season ticket holder for football since college and has regularly attended other Bulldog basketball, softball, baseball, and volleyball athletic events much of her life.

“Fresno State has always helped bring us together,” Tom said. “We got even closer when my husband was sick two years ago. People ask us if shelter in place is driving us nuts, and this is nothing compared to being in the hospital and on high stress the whole time. That was God’s way of training us. At least we can go to our respective corners and pass the time by sewing, pinning patterns or cutting.”

That time spent has also brought her closer to her son, Nicholas, in a time when most families are usually dealing with their first year apart.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Smittcamp Honors College member and freshman was busy with classes, studying, playing music, coaching basketball, tutoring other students and spending time with friends. 

“Nicholas has found a way to stay busy and gotten pretty good at using the sewing machine, and enlisted some friends too,” Tom said. “It’s kind of like the classes I work with. There's a reward in watching the students learn how to make something for the first time or understanding what happened when they made a mistake. Not surprisingly, my kids call me a perfectionist, but I know the sewing and other steps in the process are not easy, and we are thankful for all our support of so many volunteers.” 

But there’s always room for extra help, and to enlist in the cause, contact Clarence Chiong at cchiong@csufresno.edu (and be sure to indicate if you have a sewing machine).