“I placed an order on Amazon in mid-March, but they said it wasn’t actually available until July. I was all stressed out,” Day recalled in a recent phone interview. “I really wasn’t going out anywhere. And if I had to, I pulled my shirt up over my face.”
That was around the time she noticed something on the Krazy Coupon Lady, a popular website that connects consumers with bargains and sales: A company was offering free masks to anyone who wanted one.
Day signed up, but she didn’t really know what to expect. “They didn’t even ask for shipping and handling, so I really wasn’t sure I’d ever see anything,” she said.
But a sleek black mask arrived in the mail about a week later, and Day has been using it ever since. The mask was from a Portland, Ore.-based sports apparel and activewear business called DHVANI, and part of the company’s mission is to provide a free mask to everyone in the United States who needs one.
The campaign started in earnest more than 2½ months ago. The company’s co-founder and chief operating officer, Kanayochukwu Onwuama, was talking to his mother on the phone as the coronavirus was just starting to tighten its grip on the country. Joy Austin is a registered nurse at Elmhurst Hospital in Queens, and she told her son 13 people there had just died of covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, in a single day.
“She said, ‘I’ve been wearing the same N95 mask every day for a week when you’re supposed to throw it away after each shift.’ So we said, ‘What can we do here?’” recalled Avi Brown, another co-founder and DHVANI’s CEO. “We’re experts in making apparel. We know how to cut and sew. We know fabric. We have the warehouse and staff and supply chain. We can make and ship out masks. We just needed to connect the dots financially.”
They created a nonprofit arm called DHVANIcares and launched a GoFundMe campaign. Whatever money they raised would be used to manufacture and ship free masks to people in need. Thus far, more than 50,000 masks — all washable and reusable — have been distributed. Many have gone to private individuals, such as Day, who have requested masks through the company’s site. But DHVANI has also made several bulk donations to hospitals and medical centers, senior citizen care facilities, homeless organizations, and the Hopi Nation, among others.
Pearl Women’s Center, a medical practice in Portland, has received nearly 300 masks from DHVANI. Rick Rosenfield, who founded the center in 2005, has given some to staff but also placed a bin in the lobby for patients.
“Trying to figure out how we were going to continue practicing medicine during an unknown time, it made sense that we would have some sort of option to provide facial coverings for patients and staff and any visitors coming through our doors,” Rosenfield said. “We really wanted to remove any barrier to entry into our practice.”
Rosenfield has made donations to DHVANIcares and is hopeful other businesses follow suit, helping provide facial coverings for both workers and customers.
As masks have become mandated in certain states and communities, Brown is noticing a demand that far outpaces the supply. He says more than a million masks already have been requested, a tall order that requires a lot more funding. Requests have come in from all 50 states, including more than 50,000 from California. Brown says his company could meet the challenge and produce the masks but needs money for production and shipping.
“We’re hearing from veterans on fixed incomes, elderly who don’t have the means, everyone imaginable, saying: ‘I can’t afford a mask. I don’t know how to make one, or I don’t know how to get one,’ ” Brown said. “So we have all these people waiting for masks, but it’s really a fundraising challenge at this point.”
The site’s GoFundMe campaign has raised nearly $250,000 thus far, an impressive amount but not near enough to tackle the company’s stated goal: a mask for every American.
“It’s a very sincere effort, and we’re still committed to that goal,” Brown said. “There’s no hyperbole. When we say a mask for every American, we mean a mask for every American.”
The company recently launched an out-of-the-box initiative it hopes helps close that fundraising gap: It’s selling a mask with a price tag of $1 million. Brown is hopeful some philanthropist with deep pockets will be moved by the opportunity to buy a single mask and help tens of thousands of others in the process. The company is also selling its masks and says 100 percent of those proceeds go back toward the free-mask campaign.
Day, the homemaker who received her free mask last month, said she eventually was able to make a donation, and she is hopeful others in need will soon be able to benefit from the company’s offering as she did.
“I mean, there were literally no strings attached,” she said. “And the mask is wonderful. It’s almost too nice. My daughter is always stealing it from me.”
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