For Kristen Valenzuela, a second-year dental hygiene student at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) School of Dentistry, finding ways to give back to the Houston community during the COVID-19 stay-at-home mandate was a no-brainer.
On April 2, she started by volunteering at the food distribution center at M.D. Anderson Family YMCA, distributing food daily to up to 250 families impacted by COVID-19. However, the Albert Schweitzer Fellow was itching to find more avenues to help. That’s when she was reminded of her former hobby, sewing.
After finding her old Kenmore sewing machine in the garage, Valenzuela, who was named Outstanding Student in in Texas for 2020 by the Texas Dental Hygienists’ Association, decided to make masks for health care workers and others on the frontlines.
“I grabbed my sewing machine – not even sure if it worked – and said ‘Let’s just do it,’” Valenzuela recalled. “Sewing was a huge hobby of mine before starting in the hygiene program, and being a crafty person, it was nice to be able dive back into it as a way to help others while I’m sitting at home between my classes and studies.”
After finding a pattern as a starting point, she and her mother, Rhonda Valenzuela, began the process of figuring out how to make a mask. Their first mask was made April 5 and took roughly three hours to complete. With some trial runs, the two quickly figured out ways to be more efficient.
“Originally, we went through each step in order to make just one mask,” Valenzuela said. “Now, my mom cuts the fabric and has everything lined up, so I can grab it, sew it, and bag it to have ready to go.”
The masks are comprised of three to four layers of cloth, including a quilt matting. With assembly-line methods in place, one mask can be completed in as little as seven to 10 minutes.
The mother-daughter duo has made more than 220 masks. From giving them to their local mail carrier or grocery store clerk, the family wanted to ensure those who needed a mask received one.
The distribution grew from family and friends asking for “five or six more” to providing masks for city officials and their staffs. Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo, and Houston Fire Chief Samuel Peña have all worn masks made by the Valenzuelas. They connected through Marie Arcos, YMCA of Greater Houston vice president of community and government relations, and aunt to Kristen Valenzuela.
“It’s crazy how all this started, but everyone we’ve given a mask to has been very appreciative,” Valenzuela said. “To me, it’s not a chore; I enjoy it. This has been a super awesome way for us to do our part and give back.”
Mother and daughter share the enjoyment. The two often joke about how quickly the time goes when they’re working at the dining room table. “We will sit down at 10 a.m., and next thing we know it’s 5 p.m. We have no idea where the time went,” Valenzuela said.
She remembers how her house flooded during Hurricanes Harvey and Allison, and seeing people in her community rally together during those times of hardship. She hopes people continue to help others during the current pandemic, even if it’s just by doing their part and following social distancing guidelines.
She added, “It’s times like these where you see the unity of people. Even though it’s not the greatest of circumstances, if people keep doing their part to help themselves and others, we can spread some light into an otherwise dark situation.”