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Sewing together communities, one mask at a time

Trisha Garay, center, talks to Amy Guei, left, a speech therapist at Hoag Hospital, while she picks up face masks and donates some linen at Garay's home in Fountain Valley on Friday.
Trisha Garay, center, talks to Amy Guei, left, a speech therapist at Hoag Hospital, while she picks up face masks and donates some linen at Garay’s home in Fountain Valley on Friday.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

Snip, snip. Place four layers of fabric under the needle. Whir. Slip into place the elastic bands.

“Then it’s ready to go!” Trisha Garay, 42, said cheerfully over the sound of the sewing machine.

That’s the routine for Garay and her team — brother Danny Nguyen, sister-in-law Kristine Tran and friend Balkar Singh — nearly 300 times a day. They transformed Garay’s Fountain Valley garage into a face mask factory, working “around the clock” to make the protective coverings for a community fighting the spread of the coronavirus.

“I feel like God gives me some talents and I have to put it out,” Garay said. “This is the time that I need to do something for the community, because I want to protect my family and I don’t want people next to me to get sick.”

Last week, a friend asked Garay if she would sew some face masks for a local nursing home. Garay finished the masks — and made more with the leftover fabric. She posted on a local Facebook page an offer to give away the extra 60 or so masks at the local Smart & Final.

She showed up at the grocery store last Thursday to discover a line dozens of people. Her homemade masks disappeared within minutes. Several people were turned away. One elderly woman approached Garay and handed her a bag of miscellaneous fabrics.

“Can you make the masks for the community?” she asked.

“I can,” Garay responded.

Danny Nguyen shows off special ordered masks that are thicker and specific for male, female and children. Nguyen helped design the masks.
Danny Nguyen shows off special ordered masks that are thicker and specific for male, female and children. Nguyen helped design the masks.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

“So that’s the day I decide to do it,” Garay said in a phone interview Thursday. “I thought, I give away 60 masks, I’m done. But when I see the people desperate, I told my brother and his wife and one of my friends [to come] over and ... all four of us [are] making the masks.”

She posted again on the Facebook group: this time she would have more than 100 face masks to give away for free. Her team sewed through the night and showed up at the Smart & Final the next day. Again, they quickly ran out.

“I promised them — when I have nothing in my garage and I still promise, I don’t know why I did that,” Garay recalled, laughing. “But I said, ‘I will come out again and give out at least 100 more.’”

She spent $600 and about four hours at the fabric store Joann, picking up supplies. Orders rolled in — not just from community members, but from the post office, MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center, nursing homes and elderly communities. From 8 a.m. to nearly midnight, Garay and her team spent their weekend toiling away on the sewing machines. Occasionally, when they weren’t babysitting her 2-year-old and 3-month-old, her two teenagers would join the efforts to cut fabric.

Karen Granados, left, Bertha Ramirez, Roberto Ramirez and Ines Drew make face masks in their home in Costa Mesa on Friday.
Karen Granados, left, Bertha Ramirez, Roberto Ramirez and Ines Drew make face masks in their home in Costa Mesa on Friday.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

When Ines Ramirez’s Huntington Beach salon Hair Concepts was forced to close about three weeks ago, she called her elderly parents, who were then visiting their hometown of Mexico City. She explained to them the growing coronavirus pandemic and urged them to return and hunker down with her in Costa Mesa instead of at their San Fernando Valley home.

They reluctantly agreed and cut the visit short to move in with their daughter. But her usually cheery mother quickly grew weepy and depressed.

“They are the kind of people who don’t like to be without doing anything,” Ines said of her parents, Bertha, 82, and Roberto Ramirez, 85.

Then they bought a sewing machine. Bertha set to work making masks. Her granddaughter Karen Granados, 25, posted about it on Facebook and soon neighbors began asking for the homemade creations. For $5 per mask, they practically flew off the kitchen island.

Ines’ husband, Rod Dew, hunted down another sewing machine, 600 yards of elastic and extra spools of thread. Somebody else donated a sewing machine. Others sent fabric and materials.

Bertha Ramirez sews a face mask at her daughter's home in Costa Mesa on Friday.
Bertha Ramirez sews a face mask at her daughter’s home in Costa Mesa on Friday.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Now, the whole family of mask-makers gathers every day, starting at about 6 a.m. and usually lasting until 10 p.m. Karen’s boyfriend, Shawn Domanus, 30, cuts the fabric. Side by side, three generations of women — Karen, Ines and Bertha — sew the masks. Roberto cuts the elastic. The crew makes between 100 and 150 masks a day.

News streams steadily from the living room television. Occasionally, Ines, Karen or Roberto will pause to prepare a snack or a drink from the fridge. While her hands redden and her back and eyes grow tired, Bertha never stops.

“She never complains, she never says anything. She just keeps going,” Ines said. “The day goes by just like that.”

Ines and Karen don’t know how they’ll pay the rent on their Huntington Beach salon next month. Ines misses her customers and the work — even the bad days. But for now, she’s reveling in the family time. They’ll keep making masks until people don’t need them anymore, she said.

“We’re going day by day.”

Dozens of face masks printed at Electric Screen Printing in Costa Mesa. Grant Broggi, The Strength Co. owner, is selling the masks online and donating them to Stater Bros. grocery stores.
Dozens of face masks printed at Electric Screen Printing in Costa Mesa. Grant Broggi, The Strength Co. owner, is selling the masks online and donating them to Stater Bros. grocery stores.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

Grant Broggi, owner of the Strength Co. gym in Costa Mesa, also doesn’t know the future of his business. When Orange County ordered the closure of all nonessential businesses almost a month ago, he fashioned small, makeshift gyms in people’s garages with equipment from his and other gyms.

But his entrepreneurship doesn’t stop there. He is now creating customized American flag face masks from his Costa Mesa warehouse, thanks to J. Santos Sanchez and Electric Screen Printing.

When Sanchez, 58, lost his job at the Simply Straw company a few weeks ago, he turned to odd landscaping jobs to stay afloat, he said. A friend at Electric Screen Printing linked him with Broggi, who bought a sewing machine and set Sanchez to work for $15 per hour. Now he and his partner, Adali Rogel, work nearly nine hours a day, making about 200 masks.

Health officials on Thursday strongly encouraged employees at businesses open during the pandemic to wear face coverings while at work.

For every $15 mask the Strength Co. sells online, helping to cover the company’s payroll, Broggi donates one to employees at local Stater Bros. Markets. He donated 45 on Wednesday.

“[I feel] a huge sense of gratification being part of something that’s going to help a lot of people,” Sanchez said through the Spanish translation of Diana Mendoza, another employee at the Strength Co. “Especially because Grant is not only selling the masks but he’s donating some of them, too.”

The operation keeps a mini economy alive — Sanchez sews the masks, Electric Screen Printing stamps on the American flag and the Strength Co. sells them.

“If you can keep one little part of the economy open safely, the impact, the spread is astronomical,” Broggi said. “One little part of the economy open can be a lot for people.”

Adali Rogel, foreground, and Santos Sanchez, top, sew face masks in a warehouse in Costa Mesa on Thursday. Grant Broggi, The Strength Co. owner, is selling the masks online and donating them to Stater Bros. grocery stores.
Adali Rogel, foreground, and Santos Sanchez, top, sew face masks in a warehouse in Costa Mesa on Thursday. Grant Broggi, The Strength Co. owner, is selling the masks online and donating them to Stater Bros. grocery stores.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

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