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Read My Lips: Newport Beach teenagers launch nonprofit mask service

Maggie and Kate Dietrick, left, 14 and 16, and Isabelle and Hannah Dastgheib, 15 and 16, have designed masks for the hearing-impaired community with a clear plastic window in the middle.
Maggie and Kate Dietrick, left, 14 and 16, and Isabelle and Hannah Dastgheib, 15 and 16, have designed masks for the hearing-impaired community with a clear plastic window in the middle.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

The realities of the novel coronavirus pandemic hit Hannah Dastgheib hard.

Dastgheib, 16, and her younger sister, Isabelle, 15, were on spring break from Phillips Academy, their boarding school in Andover, Mass., when COVID-19 struck in mid-March. The Dastgheib sisters found out they would be spending the rest of their spring at their family’s Newport Coast home.

One day Hannah was on a walk and FaceTiming with Maggie Dietrick, her friend since they were in kindergarten at Harbor Day School. But Maggie, a Newport Beach resident who’s now a sophomore at Mater Dei High School, wasn’t getting a lot out of the conversation.

Maggie, 16, is deaf and relies on a cochlear implant.

“I was wearing a mask because I was on a walk,” Hannah said. “Maggie couldn’t understand what I was saying. Then we got the idea — what if we made clear masks?”

Hospitalizations for COVID-19 reached a new high in Orange County Tuesday with 230 inpatients, with 100 in intensive care. Even with the bump, however, area hospitals were at 59% capacity, according to county data.

Isabelle said she was inspired by a piece of mail in which the envelope had a clear plastic window. She drew up a prototype mask that similarly had a clear window around the mouth area.

“I was really interested in [the idea],” she said. “I was like, ‘How can I make this work?’ After I saw [the envelope], I was like, ‘We can definitely do this. This is 100% possible.’”

A few days later, on April 21, Read My Lips Masks was born as a nonprofit company.

Hannah and Isabelle Dastgheib, left, 15 and 16, and Maggie and Kate Dietrick, 14 and 16, have designed masks with a clear plastic window in the middle so those who are hard of hearing can see their mouths.
Hannah and Isabelle Dastgheib, left, 15 and 16, and Maggie and Kate Dietrick, 14 and 16, have designed masks with a clear plastic window in the middle so those who are hard of hearing can see their mouths.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Maggie’s younger sister, Kate, 14, who is also severely hard of hearing and relies on two hearing aids, has also been part of the effort.

“I just noticed that COVID-19 has changed the way to communicate,” Maggie said. “It’s hard for people to understand, and people mumble usually through the mask. When I was talking with Hannah, we decided to come up with the idea. It’s good for people who are hard of hearing, and it’s also good for people who have a hard time communicating through a mask.

“We just want everyone to feel included, especially during this time where it must be harder for some people than others. We want to help the most people we can.”

Read My Lips Masks has an Instagram page and a GoFundMe, which had more than $5,200 in donations as of Tuesday afternoon. Many of the girls’ friends promoted the masks on social media, Isabelle said, sharing the idea on their Instagram stories.

Bita Bagheri, who is Hannah and Isabelle’s mother, and a Newport Beach dermatologist, said about 1,000 masks have been produced so far.

The teenagers take the orders, and the masks, which come in three sizes and several colors, are sewn together by Minerva Alvarez and two other women. Alvarez had to shut down her bridal store in Santa Ana in the wake of the coronavirus, but she found out about the teenagers’ idea because her daughter, Shelsye, is a friend of Bagheri’s office manager, Chad Hassett.

Shelsye’s younger brother, Jashua, is a freshman at Mater Dei and friends with Maggie. Jashua also is deaf.

The GoFundMe donations go toward material costs and paying the three seamstresses.

“It’s a small world,” Shelsye said. “We were so surprised at how we were all connected in a way … [The teenagers] needed someone to make their vision come to life. Because it’s a hard time, this has definitely helped [my family] in many ways. We’ve been able to find comfort.”

Isabelle Dastgheib drew a prototype for Read My Lips Masks for the hearing-impaired community.
Isabelle Dastgheib drew a prototype for Read My Lips Masks for the hearing-impaired community.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

The masks are double-layered and machine washable. Bagheri said they are also useful for medical offices.

“I find that even the regular patients love it, especially the elderly patients during procedures,” she said. “They like to see the doctor smiling at them.”

Spreading goodwill is part of the teenagers’ mission. Hannah said that orders can also be taken via Instagram direct messages, and different designs and patterns can be requested.

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One Harbor Day family placed an order for a student that is hearing impaired, she said, and the mask was made in the school’s colors of navy blue and gold.

“This has been a really big part of our lives for a long time,” Hannah said. “Some people were like, ‘That’s a great idea,’ but to us it was part of the everyday. We would go to the pool or beach, and the cochlear implant is not waterproof. [Maggie] would take it off, but I would always be amazed because she could still understand what I was saying. She was like, ‘Oh, I can read your lips.’”

Hannah said the plan is to continue producing masks for the foreseeable future, adding that the venture has surpassed the girls’ wildest expectations.

“As a hearing person, I’ve found that I actually love these masks anyway,” she said. “The brightness adds some brightness to your day, and just being able to see expression and smiles also really helps.”

Isabelle Dastgheib, 15, wears a mask designed for the deaf community.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

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