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SGV Volunteers Go Full DIY to Combat COVID-19

  • One of the photo collages by Candice Wong, of the photographs sent to her by the "seamsters" after they finish each batch of sewing. Photo courtesy of Homemade Face Masks LA/SGV.

  • One of the photo collages by Candice Wong, of the photographs sent to her by the "seamsters" after they finish each batch of "ear-savers." Photo courtesy of Homemade Face Masks LA/SGV.


Alhambra , CA

As Los Angeles enters the second week of the new phase of COVID-19 “Safer-at-Home” restrictions, one of the more recent, but consistent messages through the pandemic has been the need to wear face coverings.

In the beginning of April, when the Department of Public Health first announced that cloth face coverings were to be used in essential businesses, they also said that there was a shortage of medical-grade masks. The county stressed that health care and other essential workers need to be well to do their jobs, so the supply of masks needs to be preserved for them.

Some in the community have been concerned about the health care system – specifically about frontline workers – since the beginning of the pandemic. They’re making things like cloth masks, “ear-saver” clips for medical masks, scrub caps and face shields.

The professions of the concerned citizens are disparate. A high school student and teacher in Alhambra make up a 3D printing team. Amateur and professional seamstresses, parents and children, husbands and wives and many others have teamed with a corporate manager to mass-produce hand-sewn face masks.

One Facebook group with close to 1,200 members  is called Homemade Face Masks LA. The group was founded in mid-March, with the mission-slash-disclaimer that the fabric masks won’t prevent someone from getting COVID-19, but it can be used to lessen the demand for masks in hospitals. N95 respirators – which have widely been reported to be rationed by hospitals – can be covered by cloth masks to extend the lifespan.

The San Gabriel Valley chapter encompasses the SGV, Pasadena, East L.A. and downtown, and has about 70 seamstresses who call themselves the “seamsters.”

The SGV chapter’s work and distribution has expanded to encompass LAFaceShields, a group of entertainment industry fabricators who were making plastic face shields for medical workers, from their base in Hollywood.

Candice Wong is the coordinator for the West SGV and East L.A. area. She is also the West Coast managing director for Travelers Insurance and mom of a two-year old.

Putting Business Skills to Work

Wong says she doesn’t remember officially being asked to become a coordinator – it kind of just happened – but after hearing Wong talk about the group and her serendipitous connections, she seems perfectly suited to coordinate the community efforts.

There’s just one thing: “I can’t sew,” she laughs in a telephone interview.

Extremely organized, she has a massive spreadsheet system of the entire operation. Some of the spreadsheets are of those who are on the sewing team or volunteers, donations, lists of supplies and costs, groups requesting masks, and miscellaneous ideas, many of which she has already started a list to develop.

“Elastic is extremely hard to find,” Wong says, especially because all the stores that would sell it have been closed.

But Wong’s parents used to own a garment contracting business, so they knew vendors and factories who might be able to help the group produce the masks. Wong thought she knew a family friend who would have elastic. They did – and donated three rolls of it.

The materials used to produce these masks are all donated by those in and out of the group.

Like Yvonne Golembeski, SGV chapter member, lives in the fashion district of downtown and found small businesses to support the effort and donate elastic and fabric to the group so they could continue to sew masks.

Wong recalled an older woman in El Sereno who used to sew donated large amounts of fabric and a woman in Alhambra said they were also “helping with spring cleaning” when she dropped off tubs of untouched bolts of fabric.

When she got involved, the 18 sewers were cutting their own patterns at home. Some of this was a challenge, Wong says, because some were beginning sewers or had little experience and don’t have good workspaces.

“I thought, this is not the right way to do it.”

Again, there was someone for the job – a seamstress who makes Halloween costumes made up the pattern, which was sent with donated fabric to be professionally cut by one of Wong’s family contacts.

Now the group waits for the bundles of pre-cut mask kits, in packs, and picks them up from Wong’s doorstep when they’re assembled.

Plenty of Room to Help

Not every volunteer is a sewer though, some help as delivery drivers or, more recently, by making ear-savers – made to be worn on the back of the head so the elastic is hooked on it instead of the ears saving them from irritation –  or sewing scrub caps with the scraps of fabric.

At the moment, two people are making scrub caps, and nine are making ear-savers: four are 3D-printing, two are crocheting and three are hand-sewing buttons on ribbon.

Now the group has around 70 seamsters.

Sapphira Dai, SGV chapter member, was one of the first seamsters who had no sewing experience. “Sewing with my mom has definitely brought us close to each other than ever before. She was the one who taught me how to sew.” She said she’s found a community and purpose, and has had a positive effect on her mental health.

Selina Anzai and Dione Wu, both wanted to volunteer in a meaningful way and said the masks are not just masks, but morale-boosters – for those receiving the masks and for the volunteers.

“I see pictures of recipients wearing our masks and it warms my heart,” said Anzai.

“I think about health care workers and essential workers and their families. I don’t want them to feel like society considers them expendable,” Wu said.

Golembeski was a full-time occupational therapist but is the primary caregiver for her toddler. “I was feeling an enormous amount of guilt that I wasn’t joining the fight,” but recently bought a sewing machine on a whim, “so I felt like it was fate that I make masks for my coworkers.”

Expanding to Face Shields

Wong eventually joined forces with Robert West, a fabricator and prop master in the entertainment industry, who was producing hand-crafted face shields at home – LAFaceShields – but lacked the infrastructure to distribute them.

Wong has four doctors in her family, including her husband, so the couple sits down and strategizes how to distribute the hand-fabricated face shields to those who are most likely to encounter the highest number of COVID-19 patients or need them most.

They look at all kinds of things – color-coded in Google Docs, of course – including which have the highest ICU beds, high-risk departments like surgery or ER, county hospitals, largest hospitals, which ones have been donated to previously; it’s a calculated formula to try to keep the distribution fair and to those who are in critical need of the PPE.

Karen Suarez, of the Monterey Park American Legion Post 397, volunteered to sew and asked if the group could donate masks to their food bank volunteers. Suarez’s husband is a beginner sewer and they had a roll of elastic to donate to Homemade Face Masks LA’s efforts.

About a week later, LAFaceShields couldn’t operate out of their Hollywood location any longer and American Legion Post 397 had empty space.

West and LAFaceShields are now in Monterey Park and have produced over 5,400 shields, which have gone to over 55 high-COVID-19-risk locations.

To date, the SGV chapter has made over 5,300 fabric masks, distributed to over 75 locations, and has 2,300 more in production. They are documenting their efforts through photographs which they send to Wong, who is making collages.

Homemade Face Masks LA is not the only group making ear-savers.

3D Printing at Mark Keppel

In April, Mark Keppel High School senior and Career Technical Education student Tobey Tanwongprasert began 3D printing them – calling them mask clips or straps – with his woodworking technology teacher Paul Lam after he posted about printing the clips on Instagram.

They had  both read an article about a boy scout who invented the design and made it public domain for others to print the ear-savers to help people. It “really inspired me to help out and do something good with my time at home,” Lam said.

As of last week, most of the ear-savers have gone to various health care settings, but there are some essential services on Lam’s spreadsheet like the famed Porto’s bakery and Rose City Pizza, and have even helped health care workers in Marrero, Louisiana.

Tanwongprasert said he and Lam both have their own printers and can fulfill requests themselves but do it quicker when they work together. For example, he asked his mailman if his ears hurt from wearing the mask all day and gave him around 140 to supply the local USPS office.

The majority of the ear-savers went to Lam. As of last week, Tanwongprasert printed over 1,700 of them. As a team they have printed at least 2,400, but Lam said they “kinda stopped keeping track after 2,000 clips.”

“I print some throughout the day and Mr. Lam will come and pick them up the next day,” he said. “He has the majority of the requests since he has friends in the medical community, so I help him fill those out.”

Beginning in May, the requests for mask clips declined, so they also began printing face shields for City of Hope National Medical Center and Long Beach Memorial Medical Center.

Tanwongprasert also has a color-coded spreadsheet, which tracks many data points, including the successful prints, the failed prints, minutes per print and material cost. As of last week Tanwongprasert has printed almost 100 shields. His materials to print the ear-savers and shields are nearing $100.

Lam said that some people offered to pay for the ear-savers – Lam and Tanwongprasert are donating them – and he said that any informal financial donations would go back to materials to print or ship.

Lam is also photographically documenting their donations on the high school’s wood shop Instagram.

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