One of the changes brought on by the coronavirus pandemic is also one of the most visible – having to wear masks in public spaces or at work. And high demand has made it difficult to get a mask sometimes.

This difficulty was also true for agencies at the front lines of the pandemic, such as police departments or nursing homes, where masks are needed the most. To help fill this need, Christopher Hearsey said a group of friends and associates came together to see what they could do.

“The thing that’s really important is for the community to come together and to ensure that everyone in Mercer County at least has the resources to protect themselves,” Hearsey said. “When people get hurt, sick or something happens to us, we want to feel ultimately like we’re protected, and that starts by protecting the people at the front line.”

To fill this need, Hearsey, Hermitage City Commissioner Michael Muha, his wife Rebecca Muha, Christopher Tkach and Gary Hlusko formed the nonprofit Community Response Foundation of Western Pennsylvania to make and distribute personal protective equipment, or PPE, and provide them to organizations in the community.

Hearsey serves as the foundation’s executive director, while Rebecca serves as treasurer and vice chair, Tkach as production manager and Michael as the foundation’s legal counsel.

Starting with Mercer County, Michael said about 20 to 30 different organizations were contacted. Eventually they were whittled down to about six organizations based on how great the need was.

“My wife and I started calling around Mercer County to find out if there were any places around Mercer County that needed face masks,” Muha said, “and they all said there was a need. But a lot of places said ‘If you have other places that need them, donate to them first,’”

In the first round of donations, the CRFWPA donated 20 face shields each to the Sharon Regional Medical Center, the Mercer County government, McGonigle Ambulance Service, Elite EMS, Hospitality Care Center of Hermitage and the Hermitage Police Department, according to a press release.

“We were very well received and very warmly welcomed when we made the drop offs,” Rebecca Muha said. “They all seemed very appreciative of what we’re trying to do.”

Besides serving as the foundation’s production manager, Tkach is an engineering student at Ohio State University and the owner of Setec Astronomy Technologies in Mercer.

A veteran of the Marine Corps with a decade of experience as a firefighter and EMT, Tkach was already knowledgable with how to use a 3D printer. That came in handy, Tkach said, which came in handy when the group of associates founded the CRFWPA and bought two more 3D printers to increase production of the PPEs.

The shields consist of a 3D-printed adjustable headband and a clear face shield, Tkach said.

“We tried to keep it lightweight because I wore a lot of gear between firefighting and EMS, and there’s nothing more irritating than heavy, bulky equipment,” Tkach said. “The masks are light so they don’t weigh you down, but there’s still enough weight that they don’t feel flimsy.”

Unlike common face masks, the equipment being 3D-printed by the foundation have a critical feature – reusability. The face shield can be easily replaced if damaged or scarred, but for the most part the wearer can simply sanitize and dry it off as the wearer interacts with different people or goes through different situations, Tkach said.

“A lot of disposable PPEs I found were flimsy, and that’s not to say they weren’t effective, but it didn’t give me confidence every time I put on a small mask,” Tkach said.

Aside from the initial round of donations to local organizations, the CRFWPA shifted its focus to the upcoming primary elections on June 2. To help minimize the spread of COVID-19 when people gather to vote, the CRFWPA donated 200 PPE items to the Mercer County Board of Elections, according to a press release.

Hearsey said all 90 precincts would receive PPEs to help protect its poll workers. Director of Elections Jeff Greenburg said he was very appreciative of the group’s donation.

“Election workers, particularly those who run our precincts, are the foundation of our democracy and for this group to consider assisting them in this way is a remarkable act of generosity and kindness,” Greenburg said. “These moments of hope are much needed during a time of such difficulty.”

Though the foundation has started with donations to organizations in Mercer County, Michael said the CRFWPA will support organizations from throughout western Pennsylvania, in areas such as Erie or Butler counties.

“Our goal is to eventually provide PPEs to any organization in western Pennsylvania that needs them,” Michael said.

The foundation’s members pooled their own money to help pay for the initial batch of PPEs, but they’re looking to the community for support to help fund more PPEs that can be donated in the future, Rebecca Muha said.

“The thing is, we’re so new that we’re still trying to increase awareness of us as an organization, and the fundraising will help us to go a long way in the future,” she said.

FOR MORE information on the Community Response Foundation of Western Pennsylvania, visit www.crfwpa.org or facebook.com/crfwpa.

Like David L. Dye on Facebook or email him at ddye@sharonherald.com.