Navajo Nation

People line up to receive protective masks in the Navajo Nation.

It started with a simple question: What can be done to help?

As the coronavirus outbreak spread, Arizona Jews for Justice founder Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz and campaign organizer Eddie Chavez Calderon saw how the virus was affecting immigrant communities, Native American communities and seniors. They read about the effectiveness of cloth masks at slowing the transmission of the virus, and they realized that there was something they could do.

AJJ’s new initiative, the Mask Project, is designed to help as many vulnerable groups as it can. It provides jobs for out-of-work immigrant mothers, who are being paid to sew hundreds of filtered cloth masks per week, and delivers those masks to Jewish medical professionals, Jewish seniors and the Navajo Nation.

“We’ve been trying to figure out innovative ways to be productive and helpful,” Yanklowitz said. “The Mask Project was a way to really meet multiple goals.”

The Navajo Nation has been hit particularly hard by COVID-19. Members of Navajo tribal chapters in Arizona make up 1.4% of the population, yet as of April 22, the cases reported by the Navajo Department of Health in Arizona accounted for 15% of positive COVID-19 cases in the state. In total, the Navajo Nation has recorded 783 confirmed cases per 100,000 people, compared to 80 per 100,000 people across Arizona.

The idea for the Mask Project came to AJJ when “we were looking at these horrific numbers,” Chavez Calderon said. “We were like, we have to do something. Who can we help?”

Since it launched in mid-April, the Mask Project has made more than 2,000 masks and made a major delivery to the Navajo Nation on Wednesday, April 22. AJJ estimates that they can continue to produce about 750 masks per worker per week.

The filtered cloth mask design that AJJ chose is based on the staff’s research, with straps that tie behind the head and a pouch for a filter, which can be removed and washed.

For the people who receive those masks, “it’s not even just the scientific protection, it’s a morale boost,” Chavez Calderon said.

And the masks aren’t just helping the people who receive them; they’re also helping the people who sew them.

When AJJ was first deciding how to respond, “we were hearing from our immigrant community that they felt abandoned and neglected,” Yanklowitz said.

AJJ hired four women to sew masks for the project. All four are immigrants and mothers who lost their jobs due to the coronavirus outbreak and might not otherwise have been able to pay rent or buy groceries.

“The workers themselves have been in tears,” and grateful to have the work, Chavez Calderon said.

For AJJ’s three person staff, “the workload is enormous,” Yanklowitz said. The organization is managing the logistics of sourcing and purchasing

materials and delivering the finished masks where they’re needed most. But like many other necessary items these days, supplies for masks are hard to come by.

Given both the number of masks that are needed and the more than 2,000 masks that AJJ has made so far, the biggest challenge, Chavez Calderon said, is “How fast can we deliver these masks?”

Yanklowitz hopes that the Mask Project can be used as a model in other states to employ vulnerable people and help others at the same time. “We would love to see this project become pervasive across the country,” Yanklowitz said.

And ultimately, staying productive and building a sense of connectedness and community is what the Mask Project is all about. Working on the project, Chavez Calderon said, “gives us hope, a little gleam of hope in these dark times.” JN