Million Mask Challenge Group Provides Invaluable Service during the Pandemic

Face Masks for All: Million Mask Challenge Group Provides Invaluable Service during the Pandemic

Public Health & Safety

When Andrea Ruiz-Hays started the Million Mask Challenge – WE NEED YOU! Facebook group in March 2020, it was in an attempt to connect local volunteers with community members in need of face masks. Initially the group focused on meeting the needs for PPE (personal protective equipment) to help major hospital networks, healthcare facilities and first responders. There was such a demand, however, the group broadened its focus to social services agencies, Native American tribes and Central Florida Title 1 schools.

“When the pandemic started, it became clear the nation was low on PPE and we needed to find a way to find ways to fill the void,” explained Hayes, entrepreneur and owner of Eco Strategies. “I watched a video of someone making masks, and I thought, ‘Hey, I can do this.’”

Ruiz-Hays had recently taken refresher classes on sewing through the Orange County Library System, so she got her machine out and tested a few masks, then bought more supplies and started sewing. She decided to start a Facebook group to bring other sewists together, and it took off like wildfire.

“It started as a ‘how-to’ page, but individuals with different skill sets started messaging me saying they had supplies, money and various skills to donate to the cause,” she said. “We created an administrative team and started managing the requests coming in, especially from healthcare workers, who wanted both cloth and Halyard H600 masks, which are medical-grade.”

The group, which has more than 1,800 members composed of couriers, assemblers, donors, fabric cutters, sewists and organizers, has sewn and donated 100,000 masks for the state of Florida (with an additional 40,000 nationwide). It has also donated more than 22,000 to public title 1 schools (Orange 7,000, Osceola 11,350, Seminole 4,000). After nearly a year-long commitment, the group will be closing down at the end of March 2021.

“I joined because I saw they were making masks the right way, reusable with double-layer cotton,” said Vanessa Loomie, a realtor with Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Results Realty who helped with project management. “We developed a great system, so even if you couldn’t sew, you could help out in other ways.”

Perhaps the group’s biggest achievement, in addition to the sheer number of people who were helped by receiving masks, was its ability to create an environment of giving where community members came together with a purpose and made connections to others at a time when the pandemic made it nearly impossible to do so.

“I’ve forever been changed by the people I’ve met and have built lifelong friendships with individuals I didn’t know before,” said Ruiz-Hays. “I cherish having found individuals who have a heart to give and want to see a better future for everyone.”

For more information on PPE distribution, go to Orange County’s PPE for Community Initiative.

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