By RON WILSON
Kansas State University
When my family would go on a car trip, we usually would begin by asking, “Kids, have you gone to the bathroom?”
Now we ask, “Kids, have you gotten your masks?”
Mask-wearing has become important due to the pandemic and the requirements of many stores and municipalities. One Kansas woman has helped respond to the need for masks in her community and beyond, earning her recognition as an Ag Hero from the Kansas Department of Agriculture during the 2020 Ag Growth Summit.
Keri Harris has been the district manager for the Franklin County Conservation District since 2001. On her own time, she has become a prolific mask-maker.
Keri comes from the town of Reserve in Brown County originally. Her family moved to Derby, where she grew up and went to college. A job opportunity took her to Lawrence where she met her husband, and they now live on his family farm east of Overbrook and have two children.
“Our nine-year-old daughter is in the sewing project in 4-H,” Keri said. “When the pandemic first hit, our local extension office sent out an email that the local care home was needing masks. I thought it might be a good, simple sewing project for my daughter.”
Keri and her daughter picked out a design, used some leftover fabric that they had on hand, and sewed several masks which for the care home.
“I posted a picture of her helping me sew on Facebook,” Keri said. “People said, `Oh, if you have any extra, we could sure use them.’” So, Keri and her daughter sewed some more and gave them away.
“She helped me with about the first 50 before she lost interest,” Keri said. However, people were still asking for masks so Keri continued sewing them. “I had done quilting before the kids were born. It was fun to do this. We were using miscellaneous leftover fabric that we had on hand, so we would sew them and give them away.”
After she started buying fabric, people volunteered to pay for the masks. She told them they could donate money to buy more fabric. K-State, Chiefs, and Royals prints have been popular.
Keri and her daughter made masks for every teacher at her daughter’s school. They even made masks with a clear vinyl window, which was important for the speech teacher and reading specialist.
“I’m fortunate that there are quilt stores in Overbrook and Pomona,” Keri said. When the local shops ran out of elastic for a time, Keri used hair tie elastics for the ear bands.
At the time that Keri was nominated as an Ag Hero, she had made 400 masks. As of this writing, she’s at 850 – and counting.
Keri also serves as president-elect of the Kansas Association for Conservation and Environmental Education. “I believe strongly in what they do,” she said.
Keri works with numerous Franklin County landowners, including one who now lives in New York City. “They were hit so hard and couldn’t get masks, so I sent her 20 of them,” Keri said. Another 20 went to a friend in Virginia Beach.
Janae McNally is a 4-H youth development agent with the K-State Research and Extension Frontier District, including Franklin County. “Keri Harris is a fantastic volunteer,” Janae said. “She volunteers many hours helping her local club, the Osage County shooting sports program and the county fairs. She is the kind of volunteer everyone wants to have when helping teach life skills and developing tomorrow’s leaders.”
It’s high praise for a young woman who came from the rural community of Reserve, population 84 people. Now, that’s rural.
On family trips, we used to ask our kids if they had gone to the bathroom. Now we ask if they have their masks. This demonstrates the importance of masks in our current times. We salute Keri Harris for making a difference by providing masks for hundreds of people. Her project is an unmasked success.
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Ron Wilson is director of the Huck Boyd National Institute for Rural Development at Kansas State University.