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You might call Maria Pia Sanchez la reina de las mascarillas (the queen of face masks).
Sanchez, a native of Chile who lives in Florida, worked with a few friends to sew masks to donate to front-line medical workers when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
But they didn’t just sew.
Sanchez also created the Para Todos Mask Initiative Facebook page, which has generated a worldwide network of Chilean, Mexican, Guatemalan, Colombian, Venezuelan, and other Latino volunteers to create over 7,000 masks for those who need them most.
How did this small sewing group impact the world?!
Coronavirus Pandemic Spurs Sanchez into Action
COVID-19 swept across the United States quickly in March 2020.
Sanchez didn’t see it coming.
“I first thought of the frontline workers” Sanchez said. “Two of my girls had volunteered at some clinics before and one of them eventually wants to pursue a career in healthcare. I also thought of people in Latin America and countries like Chile.”
Sanchez said Chile was about 2 weeks behind the U.S. in terms of how quickly the virus was spreading.
“I recently heard of a friend in Chile whose parents had been affected by COVID-19 while living in a nursing home,” she said.
Sanchez wanted to help.
Fortunately, she’s a designer by profession. She has experience in fabrics. So she believed she could help by making face masks for front-line workers and families in need.
She and her friends, individually in their homes, got busy sewing masks to donate to local hospitals.
But soon they did much more than sew and donate.
The Idea to Start a Facebook Group Page to Amplify Mask-Making
Sanchez and a few of her friends believed they could enlist the help of even more mask-making volunteers if they organized a Facebook Group page.
“We could have just stayed in our homes and helped as a small group, but I think it’s important to involve more people,” Sanchez said.
Sanchez said the idea to expand came about organically.
“We’re all going through something difficult and that changes everything,” Sanchez said.
Although Sanchez didn’t have much experience organizing a large community effort, she does recall working to give back to her community on at least two separate occasions when natural disasters like terremotos (earthquakes) and forest fires occurred in Chile.
“We’ve always tried as a family to participate in campañas or community wide efforts like this,” like raising money for nonprofit aid groups, Sanchez said.
Now Sanchez and her three daughters would again have the opportunity to work as a team.
Facebook Group Mobilizes Volunteers around the World
At this point, starting a Facebook page seemed like a natural place to generate community cohesiveness and the type of support needed to assemble masks while having to maintain social distance.
“We figured it was a way to help our home countries, and also help others,” Sanchez said.
The decision to start a Facebook Group was key to engaging others and mobilizing volunteers in the most coordinated and efficient way possible, to produce masks for those who needed them most.
At first, they called the Facebook group was called Por Chile (For Chile).
But as more and more volunteers from various nations like the U.S., Mexico, Columbia, Peru, Guatemala, Venezuela, Ecuador and Argentina, wanted to help, they decided to change the name to Por Todos Mask Initiative.
Sharing Ideas & Creating a Strong Workflow to Make Masks
In their small group originally, Sanchez and her friends searched their own homes for tools and materials that could be used to make the masks. They used old bed sheets and T-shirts.
Volunteers and donors, who learned of their efforts through the Por Todos Facebook Group page (and later also on Instagram), started buying materials online and shipping to their doorstep.
Sanchez and others also used their Facebook Group to share how-to videos, pdfs, and images. They also used it to maintain communication, encouragement, and express solidarity to others in the group.
“I started to put out information and motivate people with the videos, patterns, and designs,” Sanchez said.
As word got out, more and more people joined the group wanting to help.
Ten members became 100, 200, 300, and eventually 600 members!
Masks Making an Impact for Health Care Workers
The Por Todos group donated its first set of masks to local clinics and hospitals for volunteers, administrative staff, therapists and many other health professionals.
Sanchez also continued to explore ways they might be able to improve their original mask design.
They asked health professionals for feedback.
“We figured out the best size and design for the masks, made a few different prototypes, and then shared the pdfs through our Facebook group,” Sanchez said. “It’s our own experience, what we’ve learned along the way.”
To maximize efficiency and keep to social distancing guidelines, they decided to form an assembly line of workers.
“One group would cut the fabric according to the pattern, another would iron, and then they would drop off the materials to those who would sew the masks,” Sanchez said.
Once masks were ready to go, volunteers would ship or deliver them to the places that needed them most (i.e., NYC, Chile, Ecuador, and all over).
This approach was important because it allowed everyone to help out regardless or not of whether they knew how to sew, or even owned a sewing machine.
“It’s impressive to see how everyone is happy to help,” Sanchez said. “It’s a real phenomenon to see this type of collaboration. People ask ‘what can we do?’”
For many, even those who’ve never sewn before, making masks is a form of therapy to keep from getting too stressed out over watching the pandemic news.
“And they do it with joy, with their whole family,” Sanchez said.
Motivation to ‘Think Globally, Act Locally’
The decision to create a Facebook Group to inspire others began to pay off.
By May 2020, Sanchez and her team had assembled and delivered over 7,000 masks.
They had created an organized network of hundreds of volunteers. The group also started receiving donated fabric and supplies from corporations like Vertilux.
Momentum and interest generated by the Facebook group didn’t stop there.
According to Sanchez, someone from Chile contacted her about organizing a similar Facebook group back home in Chile. To help kickoff the effort, Sanchez gladly shared all the information she’d initially used to set up the Por Todos Facebook group.
“The Facebook group in Chile is essentially a copy of the one we started here,” Sanchez said. “In just 1 week that group made over 1,500 masks, so it’s really having double the impact.”
Sanchez says a third group has also formed in Columbia.
“They have some heavy restrictions [in Colombia] with how they can mobilize, but hopefully we can reach more countries,” Sanchez said. “That’s one of our goals.”
An Innovative Approach to Health Equity
Sanchez and her group continue to work toward meeting the needs of all those who might need masks, especially for those from vulnerable populations.
Her group has made masks for children living with Down Syndrome. They make special masks for people who are hearing impaired and unable to speak.
Also, they are working on some new designs using a clear, waterproof like fabric for the masks.
“Along the way different needs have come up,” Sanchez said. “We’ve worked on about 20 patterns.”
Recently the group delivered some masks to individuals who are homeless through the Ministry Feeds Homeless organization.
The group is also looking at making masks for the people working to collect food in los campos de Homestead (the fields in Homestead) in Florida.
“We know people are going through tough times and we want to help.” Sanchez said.
“In Homestead, many people must continue working, so it’s even more difficult for them. They are essential workers and they get us our fruit and vegetables, so one of our goals is to start something for them.”
They want to continue getting materials and churning out masks.
“We want to see how we can advance and continue with support from companies and groups who can help,” said Sanchez.
For those who might be thinking of ways to help out, her message is this:
“Don’t just stay with the idea. Generate community, and bring out the best in others, because when you’re stuck at home on your own you don’t accomplish as much.”
By The Numbers
This success story was produced by Salud America! with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
The stories are intended for educational and informative purposes. References to specific policymakers, individuals, schools, policies, or companies have been included solely to advance these purposes and do not constitute an endorsement, sponsorship, or recommendation. Stories are based on and told by real community members and are the opinions and views of the individuals whose stories are told. Organization and activities described were not supported by Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and do not necessarily represent the views of Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.