Gone are the days – at least for this spring – when future-minded teens spent afternoons building robots on high-tech equipment in the design lab and workshop at Boys & Girls Club of Parkersburg. Young innovators can’t be found producing prototypes and 3D printed objects either.
But the laser cutter and printer won't sit idle while the West Virginia youth follow shelter-at-home orders during the COVID-19 pandemic. Their Club director and mentor – in the final days before his family welcomed a new baby – ensured a new life-saving purpose for the laser cutter that has the highest cutting capabilities of its kind in the Club’s surrounding region.
Boys & Girls Club of Parkersburg Executive Director Ben Shuman said the laser cutter will produce upwards of 4,700 plastic face shields to guard frontline workers from the highly-contagious coronavirus. The shields will be donated to hospitals, health clinics and fire departments.
“We do whatever it takes to care for our community. Most of the time, that’s taking care of kids. But right now, it’s responding to healthcare facilities and workplaces that are telling us they need personal protective equipment.”
The equipment housed in the Club’s FLUX Makerspace was donated in 2016 by the Ross Foundation, a philanthropic group that supports communities along the Ohio River in northwest West Virginia. In the early weeks of the pandemic, Ross Foundation reached out to Boys & Girls Club of Parkersburg and three nearby makerspaces to alleviate shortages of medical equipment.
The foundation funded the purchase of 1,000 pounds of thermoplastic sheeting. To expedite delivery, a volunteer drove to the distributor in Columbus, Ohio to collect the supplies and bring them back to Parkersburg. The Club is also using its 3D printer to make face masks.
Parkersburg and its surrounding region have a population of about 160,000, of which fewer than 50,000 live in the town. West Virginia’s opioid epidemic left its toll in Parkersburg where limited healthcare systems and high-risk health factors could give rise to an outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.
Boys & Girls Club of Parkersburg is located in West Virginia’s seventh poorest Census tract for families with children, Ben said. COVID-19 cases have remained relatively low so far in the area but Club families, most who work minimum wage jobs in retail and service industries, are burdened by the economic downturn associated with the pandemic.
A single mother of three teenage boys lost her job at a hotel, Ben said. The Club worked with another community group to provide food assistance for the mother and up to 50 other families, many who are experiencing a gap between when they lose their job and first receive state unemployment benefits.
Boys & Girls Club of Parkersburg staff are calling families of Club members weekly to check on their wellbeing. Some staff are also helping Ben at the workshop, where the laser cutter produced about 500 face shields in the first few weeks of ramping up production. To create the prototype, Ben iterated off multiple design examples from other workshops across the nation that are also making personal protective equipment.
Six shields are made in a single run on the laser cutter. Ben and his staff cut 4-by-8 plastic sheets into 2-by-4 pieces that fit on the machine. The final product is a face shield and forehead strap that stays in place with two rubber bands and a brass tack.
Ben never imagined the workshop – originally conceived to equip youth with skillsets for future employment - would meet a critical need for frontline workers. He hopes the face shields bring extra comfort to workers who are risking their health and safety to care for the sick.
“We’re fortunate to have the equipment to meet that need,” Ben said. “How could we say no?”