Bella helps out with the extenders

Piles of buttons, skeins of yarn and a multitude of crocheted bands in every color imaginable fill the tables in Susan Cooney’s home.

Like many other home sewers and crafters, Cooney has been putting her nimble fingers to work outfitting local health care providers with crocheted face mask extenders.

It all started with a tag on a Facebook post: “Susan Cooney knows how to crochet!”

She didn’t think much about it at first, but then another friend reached out to ask if she could help make mask extenders. The extenders make wearing masks with elastic loops more comfortable by taking strain off of the ears. Though it had been a while since she had crocheted, the pattern seemed easy enough and the timing was right.

“When school let out for spring break I was starting to teach my daughter, Bella, how to crochet a small blanket,” says Cooney.

What started as a request for a couple dozen mask extenders soon turned into the creation of more than 600 pieces for health care professionals.

Being able to support these care providers has a special meaning to Cooney – at only 17 months old, Bella was diagnosed with stage 3 neuroblastoma.

Susan Cooney sews buttons onto mask extenders

That was just the start of the difficult months ahead for the close-knit family. Cooney’s mother was in declining health and was transferred from an assisted living facility to the Suncoast Hospice Care Center South, located inside Bayfront Health St. Petersburg, where she passed away.  All the while Bella was in and out of the hospital for cancer treatment.

“This is our way to give back,” says Cooney about her motivation behind the marathon making sessions.

She starts crocheting around 6 a.m. and ties of off the final stich around 8:30 p.m. At one point her daughter, Maya, timed how long it takes to make each extender. It takes about 10 minutes a piece, from start to finish.

Making the mask extenders has been a meaningful activity for the whole family. Cooney crochets, Bella sorts the buttons into pairs and her husband, Mike, and Maya thread needles and count out finished extenders.

“When I started I only had one skein of yarn and no buttons,” adds Cooney. “A skein of yarn makes a lot, but I needed to ask around for buttons.”

The buttons are key as they provide the anchor for elastic ear loops. After a Facebook message to family and friends, the materials started to roll in. Buttons were left on her doorstep and friends were leaving them on their front porch for Cooney to pick up.

Mask extenders

With every batch of mask extenders that were delivered, the word spread and more requests for would come in. And Cooney is making them. It’s a chance to do something good for the people that have affected her life deeply – and those that continue to support Bella.

Of the hundreds of extenders she’s made, about 300 of them have been donated to Empath Health. In return, the appreciative staff members have been sending thank you notes to Bella.

As a cancer-free fourth grader, Bella is talkative, friendly and embraces the whole world. However, she still requires extra care and regular monitoring. Bella’s hearing was affected and now she wears hearing aids. She also has ADHD, which can impact her schoolwork and how she interacts with other kids.

Through Partners in Care, a palliative care services program offered through Suncoast Hospice, a member of Empath Health, she receives speech therapy and help with social skills, as well as general wellness visits from a pediatric nurse every few months.

Grateful for all of the care her family has received, Cooney makes giving back a priority. Behind her acts of generosity there is a lesson of kindness and to be there for your community.

“I want to teach her that you can always help, even in the smallest ways,” adds Cooney. “People need people.”