Making a difference, one mask at a time

Woman with a face mask is seen at a sewing machine with other fabric around her. She is making a face mask.Brittany Jacob, who oversees sewing for Olympus Group in Milwaukee, is leading the company’s efforts to produce masks and face shields in hopes of slowing the spread of the coronavirus. Jacob is a 2009 graduate of UWL.

UWL alumna leads company’s efforts to provide face protection

In her usual job, Brittany Jacob is used to lifting spirits.

Jacob oversees sewing and mascot production for Olympus Group, a Milwaukee-based company that creates costumes for the Brewers’ Famous Racing Sausages, Ronald McDonald and many other popular characters.

But with mascots in low demand amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Jacob and her team have found a new way to not only lift spirits, but save lives. They’re channeling their energy into making masks — tens of thousands of them — for both health care professionals and the public.

Woman sits on metal table with a Dracula-like mascot head on her lap.

In her usual job, Brittany Jacob helps create costumes for the Brewers’ Famous Racing Sausages, Ronald McDonald and many other popular characters. But with mascots in low demand amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Jacob and her team are devoting their time and talents to making masks and face shields.

“Mascots bring a smile to people’s faces, because they’re cool to look at,” says Jacob, a 2009 graduate of UW-La Crosse. “But to send something out that helps doctors and nurses, it’s a cool feeling. At least for me, going to work every day, it’s very inspirational.”

By early April, Olympus Group had a few weeks of mask production under its belt and had fine-tuned its operation to produce 5,000 masks a day. They have three types of masks: disposable, reusable and a face shield for health care workers.

In all, the company has orders for 300,000 masks and face shields, and will continue to make them if demand continues.

“We’re planning to do this for the foreseeable future,” Jacob says. “Nobody knows how long this will last.”

Jacob’s background is not in the production of medical equipment, but in theater.

She fell in love with costuming and set design when she was in high school. And she sharpened her skills as an undergraduate studying theater at UWL.

“I worked with Joe Anderson in the costume shop, learned about patterning, cutting, sewing — things like that,” Jacob says. “I loved the theater staff and all the faculty. Some of my best memories are from La Crosse and UWL.”

She completed grad school at Florida State and then took a job with Olympus Group near her hometown of West Bend eight years ago.

In her time with the company, Jacob has never seen an all-hands-on-deck endeavor quite like the mask project.

What started as a couple of employees experimenting, making masks for personal use, has morphed into a massive operation.

Jacob and her team adapted the original designs to fit a wider range of head sizes, and they streamlined assembly so they could churn out as many masks as possible.

Not only is the sewing staff hard at work making masks — seemingly everyone else is, too.

“Our sales team, our front office people, our engineers, our pre-press digital designers … people from all over the company have been pulled in to help on the line,” Jacob explains. “It’s been inspiring to see the company as a whole come together.”

Their work has not gone unnoticed, or unappreciated.

Olympus Group has received many thank-yous from hospitals, Jacob notes, and many inquiries from companies and communities hoping to get masks of their own.

“I always joked when we were making mascots and worrying about deadlines: It’s not life or death. We’re not sending organs out or anything,” Jacob says. “This is obviously a different situation, and we’re trying to provide that relief, so people don’t get exposed to the virus. It feels good knowing we’re doing all we can.”