In these days, with headlines broadcasting shortages of personal protective equipment, a South Island youth robotics club is coordinating production of these items for frontline health workers throughout western Washington and beyond.
Atlantis STEAM, a non-profit student robotics club, which won international awards in underwater robotic competitions, has turned to making medical-grade masks, respirator shields, and ventilator parts for our hospital, Whidbey Health Medical Center, the Coupeville-based skilled nursing facility Careage of Whidbey, where more than 40 staff and residents tested positive for COVID-19; island Navy medical teams, and Island Hospital in Anacortes.
Since the club began more than a week ago to make vinyl face shields, and is now engaged in assembling 3D printed masks, its can-do production and sourcing skills are rippling out to the greater community.
Island County Commissioner Helen Price Johnson, sent an email April 7 complimenting the group: “Using their hi-tech talents, the local Atlantis STEAM group have connected with local civic groups and the Island County’s emergency logistics team to help meet the need for more personal protective equipment. We are blessed to live in a community where collaboration and cooperation are so highly valued. It is wonderful to see us pulling together in some truly remarkable ways in response to this pandemic. This is just one example.”
STEAM is an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Mathematics.
At the group’s hub is Ashley Bystrom, president of Atlantis STEAM. We have been in touch over the past two weeks through phone calls, texts and emails. Each day I learn of another exponential leap the club is making to involve the community to expand its reach.
“It is really cool where we are going—we recently added Ear Guards and already we have an order for 30 for OB nurses at Swedish with the question ‘Can we make 300?’,” Ashley said. “There’s another request for one hundred to be distributed to neonatal ICUs at Children’s Hospital, Providence, Harrison Medical Center, and UW Medical Center-Northwest. They will be available at each nurses’ unit, where they can be used each shift, then cleaned and ready for the next.”
The Rotary Club of South Whidbey ZOOMED recently with Ashley to provide additional assistance. Ashley is also working with Island County Department of Emergency Management for data and distribution management.
“Our ‘morning’ local Rotary club voted to provide financial assistance and other assistance,” Ashley said. “Our ‘evening’ Rotary, in addition to the others, are investigating potential ways to involve leadership club students from South Whidbey High School, and how to get Boy Scout troops involved. (There is a morning and evening Rotary Club which meets on South Whidbey to accommodate community schedules.) Also, I’m starting to coordinate with the Logistical Team of the Department of Emergency Management for Island County so they can track what we are able to do and how we might fill in any gaps/needs that they identify or are contacted with requests.”
I asked Ashley if she’s ever been this engaged in such a fast-track operation before.
“I have never worked on a project where the stakes are life or death, and the materials supply chain can evaporate in an instant,” Ashley wrote in an April 7 email. “I am a house captain for Hearts and Hammers here on Whidbey, and I am the person they turn to when there is a particularly challenging, ‘gnarly’ home we are fixing up to address the health and safety issues so that the homeowner can continue living there. The majority of the time these are hoarder houses.
“So, whether as house captain, being a stage manager of large involved theater productions, or when I produced a sold-out Anniversary Gala at Benaroya Hall with combined orchestras and a 300 person choir on stage at the same time, they all required the ability to juggle multiple needs, areas of experience, knowledge of the breath of collaborating roles and their functions, creating a solution where none currently exist – thinking out of the box, LISTENING to everyone on your team. Many of the skills I am using now, have been honed over the decades of work on these type of projects.
“However, I am grateful to have recently received my MBA from the Foster School at the University of Washington. It prepared me to meet the challenges particular to providing PPE in this pandemic: understanding the statistical reports early on to comprehend the magnitude of what was coming and preparing. Also knowledge of the intricacies of material supply chains – what to ask and how to ask critical questions, deepening my leadership skills, and making me aware of the areas I need to improve/be aware of as I lead, and an extraordinary alumni community I can call upon if need be.
“In this moment of time, my life experience, deepened and expanded with the training of my MBA, has prepared me for this challenge. Our rural community provides me with the people and resources of not only my friends and acquaintances, but that one degree of separation to extend those contacts when we need to find solutions or develop a greater net of information and collaborators.”
Using the Clinton Community Hall as the Command Center for the newly-created ‘Whidbey Island PPE Response Force,’ volunteers and Atlantis STEAM students have set up an efficient method of assembling materials which are packaged for delivery. And the effort is attracting volunteers, including retired medical professionals who advise the team on PPE design parameters.
“We can think of no higher purpose for a community hall than to aid the community in time of crises,” said Kathy Craven, a board member of the Clinton Community Hall Progressive Club.
When members of Atlantis STEAM, comprised of youth aged 7 to 15, learned that competitions they had been looking forward to this year were cancelled, they voted to use money they raised toward helping workers in need of PPEs. While only a few of the upper division team members could participate in building due to many families’ isolation requirements, everyone who can’t build–from the younger teams on up–is helping; from 3D printing to writing thank you notes for frontline staff.
Ashley’s daughter Haley McConnaughey, formerly, a robotics champion team member, is now 20, and leads the mask-making team. Parent volunteers include neonatal ICU nurse, Jaime Ruddell, whose daughter Abby is helping in the creation and assembly of the PPEs. Chuck Canright, his wife Robyn Calvin, and their son Slater, a member of Atlantis STEAM, are also involved in the new endeavor. Ashley said with the club’s need for production expansion to fulfill requests, she has since brought in a volunteer coordinator and is working with a a number of 3D printer owners throughout the island and the mainland. The club is seeking and getting donations to purchase filament—the material used for making 3D printed PPEs.
On board from the start with 3D printing are the Whidbey Wildcats Robotics Club from Oak Harbor High School.They are Atlantis STEAM’s good friends who build land-based ‘bots’ and compete in the FIRST competition.
Also in Oak Harbor, one of the adult volunteers is participating in the 3D printer group. He is a member of the famous 501st Legion, also known as ‘Vader’s Fist,’— a Star Wars’ costuming organization–aka cosplay–and fan club. He sent emails with the information on how to build the masks to the entire Legion. It included a photo of himself with completed ‘‘Bacta’ masks. His words: “Even while isolated, this Imperial Officer is aiding the war effort against the invaders from COVID 19.“
Scaling their operation up from producing 50 face shields a week to over one thousand and from 20 masks a week to now nearly 300, has been a vertical logistical curve for Ashley, who says she is thrilled to be a part of the solution in addressing the PPE shortage.
“The fun thing is trying to help the whole island get involved,” Ashley added. “People care so much and they’re stuck in their homes feeling helpless that they can’t do more. We’re now hoping to put an oversized mailbox or covered tub at Clinton Hall so people can drop off–safely!–postcards, a letter, notes, or drawings. Each of these messages of thanks, of support, and cheer will go out with every piece of protective gear to hospitals, nurses, and staff. This way it doesn’t matter how young or old you are, if you are struggling financially, or feel like you can’t make a difference: here’s a way you can reach someone who really needs to hear from you. Just a few words from you can make their day.”
As Atlantis Steam continues to evolve and its effects ripple outward, more volunteers, especially ones with fine motor skills for fine precision work, such as putting gaskets in masks, are needed. Ashley said the club could use advanced or very experienced quilters who are experienced with precision cutting. “One sheet of material needs to be cut into 200, 2.5 inch squares precisely,” Ashley said. “Face shields require more general skills, but also many more volunteers, due to the volume of requests for this critical piece of frontline equipment. Of course, volunteers would need to have been socially isolating, shower and change before and after volunteer work, and wear a mask and gloves while assembling and packaging the PPEs.
“We are giving these items for FREE to hospitals, medical personnel, first responders, and any essential personnel at high risk, who are in need,” Ashley added in the latest email. “Those who can afford to purchase these items are requested to make a donation to continuing our funding for materials; anyone wishing to support this effort is encouraged to donate either funds, materials, or volunteer. We are working with our county and state Emergency Management|Response teams, and providing materials primarily throughout Western Washington and Washington State. Those outside the state may request items. Responding to those requests will depend upon availability of further supplies after WA requests are fulfilled.”
Photographer David Welton asked to include this photo of Dr. Plague, a doctor who treated others whether they were wealthy or not from 1347 to 1353. More than 600 years later, we have a new sort of face mask and shields for our front line workers.