Catholic retired firefighter has ‘mission’ of making, giving away masks

Jim Donlan, a member of Holy Spirit Parish in Indianapolis, assembles a mask in his garage April 9, 2020, during the coronavirus pandemic. The retired firefighter has made and given away some 2,800 masks that can be used to help stop the spread of the coronavirus. (CNS photo/Sean Gallagher, The Criterion)

By Sean Gallagher Catholic News Service

INDIANAPOLIS — Back in early April, Jim Donlan had a problem. Face masks were starting to be used more widely in public settings as a way to curb the spread of the coronavirus, but he couldn’t find any.

So, like many other people, he started making them, but he didn’t stop there.

In about three weeks, Donlan and volunteers who have come to his Indianapolis garage have made and given away some 2,800 masks.

“This is one of the most enjoyable things I’ve done,” said Donlan, a member of Holy Spirit Parish in Indianapolis. “There’s nothing better that you can give to somebody right now than a mask. Right now, people are scared of this virus and they’re looking for a way to protect themselves and others. It’s a selfless act to be wearing one right now.”

Donlan worked for 33 years as a firefighter for the Indianapolis Fire Department before retiring at the end of February. He’s also been an assistant wrestling coach for the past three years at Father Thomas Scecina Memorial High School in Indianapolis.

It wasn’t long after retiring that the spread of the coronavirus began to dominate people’s attention and significantly change their daily lives. While Donlan enjoyed being retired, he knew he could do more.

In addition to making masks, he’s also now working as a front-line medical worker as an emergency room technician at Community Hospital East in Indianapolis.

The coronavirus threat hasn’t given him second thoughts about his new line of work.

“It didn’t change my mind about it at all,” Donlan said. “I thought that, more than ever, this was a time that I could serve a little bit.”

He said his three decades as a firefighter helped form him to accept danger in serving others.

“I was blessed by my job in the fire department,” Donlan said. “In return, I tried to give the fire department the best I had. I wanted to do everything I could in my power to maybe be the last line of hope.”

He calls his efforts to make and give away masks his “little mission.”

“It’s nothing special,” he said. “It’s just one more thing for many people.”

The masks are made of heavy-duty shop paper towels, coffee filters, pipe cleaners, staples and rubber bands. They cost about 10 cents to make and can be assembled in seconds.

He said the paper towels have been shown to be three times more effective than ordinary cotton cloth in filtering particles. Donlan also said these masks are reusable and can be washed and air-dried.

“The whole time that we’re in operation in here, everybody’s in gloves and masks,” Donlan said. “We’re constantly sanitizing the exterior of our gloves. I’ll sanitize the workstations three or four times throughout the day. We do our best to make the mask not be part of the problem.”

Anyone who comes to volunteer also has their temperature checked.

“If this would even be so lucky as to prevent one infection, it would all have been worth it,” he said. “Not one life. Just one infection.”

The third-generation firefighter said: “God’s been so good to me, so, any time that I can give back, I love the opportunity.”

While he spoke about his efforts from his garage, a fellow Holy Spirit parishioner, Mike O’Connor, came to pick up some masks to give to volunteers at food distribution points in Indianapolis for students now going without meals from schools.

“It’s the American way of sitting down and figuring out what each and every one of us can do and bring to the task,” O’Connor said of Donlan’s efforts. “I’m not surprised, having known Jim as long as I have. I’ve seen him jump in, whether it’s with the wrestling team at Scecina or other things. He steps up to the plate.”

Although living in the pandemic has been a challenge for everyone, Donlan is confident that it will have a good effect on society in the long term.

“You’re going to look back and remember this time and how positive it was,” he said. “It was scary, but positive. A lot of people are coming together.”

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