January-February 2021

Mask makers

A local group of volunteers has donated nearly 37,000 face masks—and they’re still sewing

Yong Lee (left) and her 17-year-old daughter, Neena Rim. Photo by Laura Chase de Formigny

Yong Lee couldn’t find masks at the store last spring, so she went online to learn about making some herself. In her research, she ran across a video of MoCo Mask Makers—a local group that was connecting people who could sew with those who needed masks.

“I said, ‘Why not?’ It was a great way to be productive during quarantine,” says Lee, who recruited her two teenage daughters and taught them to sew. By November, the Darnestown family had donated more than 2,000 masks—about half to MoCo Mask Makers and the rest to individuals, such as teachers and police officers, in other states.

“I never thought we would make that many,” says Lee’s 17-year-old daughter, Neena Rim. “[Sewing] was a little challenging at first, but once I got the hang of it, it was really fun. I would spend hours on the sewing machine without realizing it.”

When face masks were in short supply at the beginning of the pandemic, Christina Davis, a freelance writer and editor who lives in Rockville, wanted to do what she could to provide them for health care workers and first responders. The 41-year-old mother of two launched MoCo Mask Makers, partnering with friends and recruiting a network of volunteers on Nextdoor and Facebook.

Photo by Laura Chase de Formigny

In 2020, the group provided nearly 37,000 masks to local health care facilities, nonprofit organizations, schools, businesses and individuals—all for free. About 500 people have volunteered for the group in some capacity.

“I was astounded by the response in Montgomery County,” says Davis, who handed over leadership of the group last summer. “Many people—the sewists, the administrators, the donators—everyone wanted to do something.”

When JSSA in Rockville desperately needed masks, MoCo Mask Makers provided some for the nonprofit’s hospice staff, says Connie Echeverria, supervisor of volunteer services at JSSA.

“Some prints have flowers, and others have cartoons that make patients giggle. They have become icebreakers,” Echeverria says of the more than 1,300 masks JSSA received over several months last year. “To think that hundreds of people were moved to sew masks for complete strangers—to take their time and to donate—that is so meaningful. The masks have been such a blessing.”

Photo by Laura Chase de Formigny

In her office-turned-workroom, Yong Lee and her daughter Neena Rim (right), a senior at Northwest High School in Germantown, have been cutting, ironing and sewing masks since last April. The family was getting a little “stir crazy” a few weeks into the pandemic, says Lee, a 56-year-old retired certified public accountant. In the past, she had tried—unsuccessfully—to interest her daughters in sewing. They were open to it when Neena’s competitive cheer practices and other activities came to a halt and Hana, 19, was home from Indiana University. “It was definitely a bonding activity,” Neena says. “Because we had to spend so much time together locked in the house, it was a good way for us to talk and have something to talk about when nothing was going on.” The sisters decided to raise money for materials and sold about 100 masks—making a website and promoting on social media that one mask would be donated for every mask sold. The support from friends and thank you notes they received were encouraging, Neena says. “I feel it was a great way to bring the community together at a time when we were all separated.” As the months went on, Lee says she noticed a change in her daughters’ attitudes. “They took pride when they saw packages of 100 or 200 masks going out in bulk,” Lee says. “It made us feel good. It was not just making a donation. We got so much out of it.”

Photo by Laura Chase de Formigny

In the early days of the pandemic, Sara Watson spent every available minute cranking out masks in her Silver Spring home, recycling cotton tablecloths and sheets. “I’m a little less frantic now, but there is still clearly a demand,” says Watson, 59, who sews on weekends or at night after putting in a full day of work as an independent policy consultant. “I really believe in science…it infuriates me when people don’t wear masks.” Watson is partial to fun prints, including those with Pokémon or Lion King characters that appeal to kids. Her husband, Jim Gifford, sacrificed one of his Hawaiian shirts to be transformed into bright orange masks.

Photo by Laura Chase de Formigny

She experimented with various shapes and styles before settling on the rectangular pleated patterns that she says are easiest to mass produce. “I have a little factory in my living room, with fabric spread out, an ironing board set up, and a sewing machine behind the couch,” says Watson, who has made about 400 masks, each taking about 30 minutes. “While I binge-watch TV, it’s a very relaxing thing to do. It’s satisfying to see the pile of masks grow.”

Photo by Laura Chase de Formigny

From her home in Gaithersburg, Sol Carvajal, 42, has sewn and donated more than 700 masks to MoCo Mask Makers. She is teaching her 11-year-old son, Matias (above), to sew. Her daughter, Mia, 22 months, likes to play with the masks that aren’t donated. (She also has a 6-year-old son, Thomas.) Carvajal was motivated to contribute, in part, after her grandmother, who raised her in Chile and taught her to sew, died in late March at the age of 92 from heart problems.

Photo by Laura Chase de Formigny

Carvajal fires up her machine most nights after her kids have gone to bed around 9 p.m., sometimes sewing until 3 a.m. She watches TV while working in Mia’s room, which she converted into a sewing space. (The toddler’s crib is now in Carvajal’s bedroom.) She has sold another 600 masks on her own in the hopes of earning enough money to buy a new sewing machine. “I’m super happy that I can use this skill my grandma taught me and at the same time help people who cannot afford [masks],” says Carvajal, who works part time as a housekeeper.

Photo by Laura Chase de Formigny

Isabel Hernandez-Cata can’t sew. But she says she knows how to hustle—to get donations, recruit volunteers and coordinate the delivery of masks to those who need them. Pictured on her Kensington porch with reams of donated fabric, Hernandez-Cata got involved with MoCo Mask Makers last spring and became a co-leader of the organization when the original founders were looking to pass the baton in the summer. “For me, it felt like something I could do in a time when I was feeling helpless,” says the 46-year-old jazz vocalist and music teacher at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring. “I had some survivor’s guilt for being a married woman with a great house and a job that I could do online when so many people were suffering. This was perfectly at the intersection of local, somewhere I could actually help, and a great group of interesting people. I’m inspired by the creativity of it.”

The summer phase of the organization was rebranded The Makana Project (“makana” means gift, reward or donation in Hawaiian)—a name influenced in part by Nikki-Ann Yee, a volunteer from Gaithersburg who is from Hawaii and helped coordinate the project for a few months. The summer co-leaders enlisted teenage volunteers who ramped up social media messaging and advocacy about mask wearing. By the fall, the organization returned to its original name: MoCo Mask Makers. Hernandez-Cata is now the director.

Photo by Laura Chase de Formigny

Greg Bertenshaw gave his 9-year-old son a 3D printer for his birthday last April, and the two quickly put it to use to help those making and wearing masks. They made hundreds of plastic pleating fixtures (bottom right) for the people sewing, and also ear savers (bottom left), which are designed to reduce soreness by connecting mask loops in the back of the head instead of wearing them around the ears.

Photo by Laura Chase de Formigny

“For nurses and doctors who wear masks all day, the straps can dig into their skin. The ear savers can help with the indentations that the masks can cause,” says Bertenshaw, who lives in Gaithersburg and got help from another MoCo Mask Makers volunteer in downloading the programs to produce the items. “I thought if we can make a small contribution, let’s do it, and it’s easy to do,” says Bertenshaw, 46, an executive at a biotech company in Rockville.

He hopes his son sees that helping is about giving time as well as donating money. Bertenshaw says he makes the process fun: “I typically print a batch of ear savers and then a Yoda or Star Wars destroyer [toy]. We mix and match what we do. …We are both learning.”

Photo by Laura Chase de Formigny

After learning about MoCo Mask Makers through a posting on the Nextdoor app, Rockville resident Wahab Syed started delivering masks for the group. Sometimes he drops them off at a home, and other times it’s at a senior living center, such as Leisure World in Silver Spring, where the 28-year-old made frequent deliveries early in the pandemic. “You could see in people’s eyes they were scared,” says Syed, courier coordinator for MoCo Mask Makers. “Delivering there was a feel-good moment because you were helping someone who might be super scared to walk out their door. We got requests from adult kids whose parents lived there, but they were not able to visit.” Syed, who’s married and has a 3-year-old daughter, has been working his information technology auditing job from home since last March. He volunteered up to 20 hours a week in the first phase of the project, often making runs late at night or on weekends. “I’ve met so many new people,” says Syed, who moved from Pakistan to Rockville in 2008. “The biggest thing I learned is that although we live in an individualistic society, people come together in the hour of need. …This was all from the heart.”