By Dale Hemmila
Early on in the Coronavirus 19 pandemic, if you found yourself nearly a thousand miles from home, working long shifts among dozens of people you didn’t know, most of us would hardly call ourselves “lucky.” But that is exactly how Fort Gratiot native Sarah VanderHeuvel described herself recently as she discussed her work to help people stay safe in the fight against COVID-19.
VanderHeuvel volunteered not once, not twice, but three separate times to work on projects that were critical in the early days of the fight against COVID 19.
The Port Huron Northern High School graduate was just months into her job at the Ford Motor Company’s Michigan Assembly Plant, after earning an Industrial and Operations engineering degree at the University of Michigan, when Ford asked employees to volunteer to assist at a personal protection equipment production facility.
“They said we need 30 people in South Dakota in the next 48 hours,” VanderHeuvel recalled. “A few engineers had gone out earlier in the week to a 3M plant and said if they had 30 or 40 more people, we could be making hundreds of thousands more masks for people on the front line.
“As soon as I saw that, I knew I wanted to volunteer because it was the first couple weeks of the pandemic and I was seeing videos on social media and on the news of nurses, doctors, and EMTs on the real front lines not having what they needed to care for people. I definitely wanted to help and it seemed like the perfect opportunity.”
So, in short order, she joined a group of fellow Ford employees, none of whom she knew, in a 16-hour auto caravan to the 3M face mask and respirator assembly facility in Aberdeen, South Dakota. Upon arrival, after a brief orientation, they were put to work on either eight or 12-hour shifts to fill in for missing members of the 3M workforce.
While she acknowledges there was concern about the health implications of leaving home during a pandemic, the overall involvement was worth the risk.
“I had such a great experience being around other people that really wanted to help and had such a good attitude, and made it such a good experience,” she said. “It was kind of a scary time, but being around people that were motivated and wanted to help was a cool thing to be a part of.”
While working on the production machinery, the Ford team was encouraged to offer any insight they might have that could help increase productivity.
“We tried to optimize anywhere we could,” VanderHeuvel said. “So anywhere we found production where if they could make a slight tweak or change to increase production or get it out faster, then we implemented those with the 3M engineering team.”
The influx of the Ford team had a substantial impact on productivity at the plant as VanderHeuvel pointed out that within three days of their arrival, production went from 700,000 pieces daily to one million pieces per day.
The Ford team ended up operating at the plant for two weeks while 3M worked to increase the plant’s labor force.
“We were covering the time it takes to hire people and onboard them,” she said. “They got a person to replace every single one of us in two weeks and once they had them trained, they had to send us home.”
Once home, it wasn’t the end of VanderHeuvel’s work to assist front line workers, however, as she quickly moved into volunteer assignment number two.
Just a week after returning from South Dakota, VanderHeuvel volunteered to go to Ford’s Troy Design and Manufacturing plant where they were making and shipping face shields.
“They called in volunteers because they had a bottleneck in the process that was holding up the whole thing,” she said. “So they called in anyone who was available to make and pack boxes of the shields. The first day there was no plan to make 26,000 boxes and get them packed. So I set up a tracking system and mini assembly lines and so that started to work.”
While in the midst of the face shield project, however, the third volunteer opportunity presented itself.
“At the end of a week we were getting really close to 26,000 (boxes) and my director called me and said they needed people to come down to Indiana,” she said.
Asked to drive directly to Indiana that very same day, VanderHeuvel agreed, and within four hours, she found herself at a Ford plant in Indianapolis.
The work there was to assemble PPE kits with face masks, hand sanitizer, thermometers, lotion and other items for distribution to Ford employees as they returned to work.
“There was a big push because our Europe plants were opening a little bit earlier than our North American plants so we wanted to have the kits ready for their startup too,” she said. “When we got there, it wasn’t a good setup and the deadline they gave us was in 48 hours. We needed to have 50,000 kits made, packaged, banded and on trucks, ready to go.”
So, assembly lines were set up and a call out to other employees was made. At VanderHeuvel’s suggestion, a call was made to the South Dakota volunteer team to assist as well.
“A lot of people I worked with in South Dakota came down to Indiana,” she said.
With as many hands on deck as possible, VanderHeuvel wrapped up work in Indianapolis and by then had navigated through three volunteer assignments in a short period of time during the earliest and more frightening times of the pandemic.
Of course all of this begs the question about her concern for her own health. Getting sick had to cross her mind, right?
“Yes,” she answered, “but the biggest worry was going into plants where they were making shields and masks for people that were already sick and exposing other people. So I didn’t as much worry for myself or me getting sick, but just exposing other people.”
She said she wore her mask faithfully, made sure she drank plenty of water and took extra vitamin C to keep up her immune system. She also made sure she got plenty of sleep. She said they had a symptom screening at the beginning of each shift upon entry into the plants.
While the volunteer work was fulfilling in one way of assisting in the fight against the virus, it had the added benefit of providing real-world experience for an engineer young in her career.
“Actually working on the line, running the machine, was a pretty new experience,” she said. “And it was a good experience because a lot of what I do at my job as an engineer affects the people working on the plant floor. It gave me a chance to use my degree and my problem-solving skills.”
VanderHeuvel is back in Michigan, working from home, as a part of the new Ford Bronco team preparing for the vehicle’s sales launch in 2021. However, she said if the call came out to take on a similar volunteer assignment, she would certainly do it again.
“It was a great feeling just to know even if I helped just a little bit for so many doctors, even if it wasn’t a huge number, that they got the safety equipment that they needed to do their job, and help the people that are really sick,” she said. “The first couple of weeks during the quarantine I hated feeling like I was sitting there and not being able to help. So being given the chance to do something about it and get to help others? I am very lucky.”