Ziploc bags with names – Amelia, Helen, Barbara — are stuck with pins to a brown corkboard displayed in front of a house in Mira Mesa.
The board is colorful; inside each bag is electrified Pikachu, Olaf the snowman, moose on lumberjack plaids, and pastel florals. From far away it’s like a display of students’ names in a kindergarten classroom. Each Ziploc bag holds face masks designated for neighbors, healthcare workers, post office employees, and elderly folk who come to contactlessly pick them up every day. Fat paper bags hanging at the bottom of the corkboard hold large orders, likely for businesses.
“I think for the past month our address is probably one of the most searched addresses.” San Ngyuen laughed, referencing the amount of people who come to pick up face masks. This family, San Ngyuen, his wife Khanh Huynh, his mother-in-law Hoang Nguyen, and his sister-in-law Jaclyne Huynh, have turned their home in Mira Mesa into an operation to ease the U.S.’ lack of personal protective equipment in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. And they’re not charging anything, though donations are much appreciated.
Like nearly every human interaction in the times of coronavirus, I meet San Nguyen and his family through Zoom. They’re even nice enough to take me on a virtual tour of their operation. San takes the camera around their dining-room-transformed-production-facility and outside the house, which feels like I am small enough to fit in a human hand and be swooped around from room to room. No professional seamstresses here, but you would think Hoang was from the stacks of face masks dwarfing what was once a dining room table. San mentioned that they haven’t eaten in their dining room for a long time. They’re just regular citizens — neighbors — who have found a way to help during a pandemic of historic proportions.
Khanh Huynh works as a pharmacist at a hospital in San Diego. She told her husband and mom how scared she was about the lack of personal protective equipment across the nation just a few days before they decided to start making face masks. Khanh Huynh said, “Even though I don’t come in direct contact with patients like nurses who are doing triage, we do share their environment.” Noting the devastating lack in equipment, the family began making face masks mid-March. San posted about his family’s face mask-making operation on several web pages, one being the app, Nextdoor, where I found them.
They got flooded with messages, most from Mira Mesa residents. One comment on their Nextdoor post asked for face masks for nurses at her hospital, another from a 73-year-old man looking to protect him and his wife, and another from a city bus driver. One comment reads, “I am not a healthcare professional. But I work inside hospitals maintaining the oxygen system as a contractor. I have a job up in LA tomorrow and that facility is making us bring in our own mask. Home Depot is sold out.” Many other commenters have chimed in, not looking for face masks, but offering to donate fabrics or help any way they can.
Requests for face masks have come from Rady Children’s Hospital-San Diego, UCSD pharmacies from La Jolla to Hillcrest, Scripps Mercy Hospital, the USPS Post Office in Mira Mesa, Boulder Creek Post Acute in Poway, and Albertsons in Rancho Bernardo, according to Khanh Huynh and San Nguyen. A memorable request came from a woman whose uncle was going on dialysis three times a week, even during the pandemic, said Khanh Huynh. San Nguyen mentioned myriad requests have come from the Park Village neighborhood, which has an average age of 50, according to Nextdoor. The family has fulfilled over 300 orders and made 2,000 masks for the San Diego community.
They’ve got this family operation figured out: San buys the materials, Hoang sews, and the two Huynh sisters do quality assurance and packaging. If there’s anything amiss, it goes back to Hoang for changes. The face masks are made up of three layers, the inside and outside layers are 100% cotton in quilted, flannel, or T-shirt material. Within the two layers is a sheet of felt, which acts as a filter, something many handmade masks don’t include. They’ve taken painstaking measures to ensure the fabric is free of contaminants: wash the fabric straight away with high heat, a hot tumble dry to prevent wrinkles, which also preshrinks the fabric. San mentioned that he thinks he’s washed his hands more times in the past month than for the entirety of 2019. Each face mask comes with instructions on how to wash them. They should be hand washed after every use outside the home, like coming home and washing one’s hands right away, said Khanh Nguyen.
“Not everyone could afford a mask that is one time, disposable. So we hope that with this mask, we can reach out to more people and make it more sustainable for them to last through the next few months,” Khanh Huynh said.
Despite being the benefactors in this scenario, the family described the great amount of gratitude felt towards Mira Mesans and San Diegans alike. “At the end of the day, I feel like we got a lot back, to see how the community is protected. When people come to our door to pick up their masks, they bring their dogs, sometimes they drop off Ziploc bags for us so we can continue putting each mask in the bag, or dropping off fruits that they can offer. It’s a great way to stay connected when we’re maintaining social distancing.” Khanh Huynh continued, “People are helping each other. It just makes us feel so thankful.”