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October 15, 2020

Behind the Mask

These days, it’s not uncommon to walk by our favorite restaurants, stores, and businesses and see closed doors. If you pull on the door handle, they’re almost always locked. Glance up, and you’ll often see a sign on the window explaining their closure, typically citing the ongoing pandemic. Folks like to say when the going gets tough, the tough get going. These are the creative problem solvers, the innovators, everyday people who find ways to keep going in the midst of difficult circumstances. And right here in our community, we’re watching the story of a tough community get going during the COVID-19 pandemic, using what they have to provide a simple and significant resource to thousands of people.

Derek Payton, Executive Director of Root Access Hackerspace in Fresno’s Tower District, had just closed the doors to the makerspace due to Shelter-in-Place orders. It was a hard, but somewhat inevitable decision, as COVID cases in California and the Fresno area continued to rise. Root Access is a makerspace built around community, so cancelling meetups, events, and eventually closing their doors left them unsure what the next few days, weeks, and months would look like.

“While it was definitely a bummer, it was the only obvious decision to make in the interest of everyone’s health and safety,” Derek explained. “Our largest concern was for the community itself. A number of folks have come to depend on Root Access and the events we host to provide much needed social interaction.”

But when the going gets tough, the tough get going, and that was definitely the case for Derek and the Root Access community. He had been keeping an eye on what other makerspaces across the country and world were doing during COVID-19, especially relating to the growing shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE). “I knew Root Access would have a role to play as more COVID-19 cases started appearing in Fresno,” said Derek. 

Armed with a line of sewing machines, scraps of fabric, and over a dozen volunteers, Root Access started making cloth face masks with the intention of providing them to anyone in the community who needed one. 

“We didn’t start with any particular goal, we only saw that there would be a need,” Derek reflected. “The CDC had not yet made the recommendation for people to wear masks … but we had the skills and resources to do something.” 

Brooke Payton, Derek’s wife, remembers when the first bulk request came in. “The first real request we received was for the Bitwise Take Care team, so that they could safely deliver groceries to those in need in the community.” Brooke said. Take Care was started by Bitwise Industries to help provide groceries to the elderly, sick, and immunocompromised during the ongoing pandemic. Face masks were essential to these volunteers who were going into grocery stores and delivering orders to many different homes.

Derek added a simple request form to Root Access’ website, figuring a handful of orders might come through as word spread. But after getting highlighted on the local news, that suddenly changed. 

“The story aired that evening and resulted in hundreds of requests. We were being contacted by healthcare and essential workers, diabetics, asthmatics, cancer patients, and so many more. That’s when I knew we were on to something.” 

– Derek Payton, Executive Director, Root Access Hackerspace

Before the pandemic, Root Access was a makerspace focused on building and creating all sorts of things. But now, they were hustling to build out a system to streamline the request and fulfillment process. Suddenly, the community that made Root Access so unique became the front lines of an effort to help provide vital personal protective equipment.

“Before COVID-19, I was a crafting teacher,” explained Brooke. “It made me unbearably sad that we had to close our doors to members and the public, but I was glad to be busy helping make masks. Every aspect about the mask construction was an opportunity to teach people.”

Rita Dearing, an individual in the Root Access community, learned how to sew from Brooke. “I went from not having a clue on how to use a sewing machine to making face masks, bags, pillows, and so many other things I lost count,” Rita said. “This effort awakened my inner creator.”

The process is simple from a user standpoint, head to their website and fill out a short form to request a mask for yourself. But, behind the scenes, the Root Access team jumps into action. A group receives online requests, organizing and tracking them all the way to fulfillment. The assembly team collects donated fabric, selects pieces, trims the mask to size, and individually sews each one. 

“It made me happy to know that the fabric collected over someone’s lifetime was being used to help protect lives in the community,” Brooke reflected. “We found Betty Boop, Monopoly money, Care Bears, Mickey Mouse, and so much more! Each time a fanciful fabric was used I hoped it would make someone smile.”

Masks are handed off to another group that launders and packages them for pickup or delivery. The entire process is like a well-oiled machine, with supporting folks providing extra fabric or even food to keep volunteers fed.

Jackie Callaway, a Root Access member, spent her evenings for several weeks working at the makerspace sewing masks and bagging up orders. “I noticed the team wasn’t eating enough, so I started bringing along my instant pot with loads of ingredients to make sure everyone got a healthy, home cooked meal.”

Since Root Access started making face masks, the CDC has recommended the use of cloth face masks, and in California, Governor Gavin Newsom recently mandated the use of face masks in public spaces where social distancing is not possible. The need for masks is greater than ever and Root Access is continuing to make sure anyone who needs a mask can request and receive one.

If we break down what Root Access has done so far, it looks a little like this: Approximately 22 volunteers have spent over 2,000 hours creating over 3,000 pieces of personal protective equipment, including 2,700+ cloth face masks, 200+ plastic face shields, and 150+ scrub caps. And the numbers just continue to grow.

But this initiative, aptly named “Face Masks for Everyone,” isn’t just about providing a cloth mask to help slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus, it’s about the person behind the mask, who is receiving a life-saving piece of personal protective equipment. Dez Martinez is the founder of We are Not Invisible, a local nonprofit providing resources and serving our homeless community. She requested face masks from Root Access, which provided 100 masks to hand out. 

Nicole Linder is the Executive Director of the Marjaree Mason Center, a domestic violence shelter here in Fresno. After connecting on Twitter, this organization was able to receive a much-needed bulk order of cloth face masks. “Besides 100+ staff, Marjaree Mason Center provides housing and supportive services to more than 450 adults and children on a daily basis,” explained Nicole.

“It was very helpful to have Root Access assist us in this way, especially because at the time disposable masks were backordered and we were scrambling to ensure we had enough PPE to keep all staff and clients healthy and safe.”

Nicole Linder, Executive Director, Marjaree Mason Center

A cloth face mask is simple, but means so much more during these difficult times. It represents care, concern, and empathy for our community. And for Root Access, behind every mask is a person stepping up to help others and making sure no one goes through this on their own.

“The Root Access community is that hand you find when you reach out into the darkness, and it makes this ‘new normal’ feel a little more okay,” said Jackie. “Being a part of this, knowing that not only am I not alone, but I’m part of a group making sure no one has to be alone? There’s no deeper, more comforting connection than that.”

The future is uncertain. We’re not exactly sure how long this pandemic will last or how long we’ll need to keep practicing precautionary measures like cloth face masks and social distancing. But this much we do know – our communities are strong and resilient. And when they are faced with tough times, they become creative problem solvers and innovative thinkers, finding ways to keep going and help others – even if it’s as simple as a bag of handmade cloth face masks.

Root Access’ Face Masks for Everyone initiative continues to create and distribute cloth face masks, and you can find more info here, including how to request a cloth face mask, donate, or volunteer.

Leah Sadoian is a writer for Bitwise Industries, digital content creator, and Central Valley native. She primarily writes marketing material, website content, and narratives for the Bitwise Stories series. In her free time, Leah enjoys a cold IPA, Law and Order SVU reruns, and spending time with her cat, Marge.