Wanting to put her time to good use, she reached out to the homeless population in her community and donated tents and air mattresses, and also paid to have two washing stations installed so people could keep their hands clean.
Then a friend showed her a news story in March about Los Angeles-area hospitals pleading for face masks. Wong knew it was time to pull out her Hello Kitty sewing machine and leftover fabric scraps.
She posted an offer on Facebook to make a mask for anyone who was immunocompromised or was unable to buy one on their own. She found herself swamped with hundreds of requests from front-line workers and people who were considered high-risk.
Realizing that she couldn’t handle the job alone, “I put out a call to my Facebook friends for help,” she said.
Initially, 26 people signed up, but as the demand for masks grew, so did the number of volunteers. Wong decided to call her sewing group the Auntie Sewing Squad, after a friend told her, “There are squads of aunties being deployed right now.”
“In Asian communities, ‘auntie’ is a term of endearment and trust,” Wong said. “An auntie is someone who helps you feel loved and cared for.”
Nearly four months later, Wong and more than 300 “aunties” are still making masks, with a focus on helping vulnerable communities such as migrant workers, day laborers, people being released from prison and Native Americans who live in isolated areas.
More than 60,000 masks have now been donated, she said, with plans to keep stitching for as long as they’re needed. Although Wong initially requested $5 to cover postage for each mask, hundreds of people who can’t sew now chip in to pay for postage or buy fabric.
“We were fortunate to have enough in donations that we can now ship to our recipients for free,” she said. Although she hasn’t had to spend her own money on the project, she has spent up to 80 hours a week sewing masks and coordinating deliveries.
“The communities we help are usually miles from a Walmart, with no easy way to access masks,” said Wong, who has worked with her volunteers to send thousands of masks to Native American tribes such as the Navajo Nation, where many people don’t have electricity, running water or access to the Internet.
“Our goal is to reach all communities who aren’t getting support with masks from other groups,” she added. “We’re the least likely kind of soldiers. But we can sew. We have a gift that can help save lives.”
Wong said she learned the difference between a backstitch and a basting stitch from her grandmother and mother, accomplished seamstresses who patiently taught her how to sew on a button and create everything from dolls to school clothes.
She honed her craft in middle school home economics class, she said, and when she became a comedian and actress, Wong decided it made sense to sew her own props.
“I would sew to de-stress,” she said, “and I had this crazy idea to sew the entire set for my 2015 show, ‘The Wong Street Journal.’ I created the entire set of the New York Stock Exchange on my sewing machine.”
For Wong, who often uses her performance art to draw attention to social and racial injustice, sewing face masks to help society’s most vulnerable seemed like a perfect fit, she said.
“I don’t like to romanticize any of this because the government should actually be doing this work,” Wong said. “But I refuse to be depressed about it. People need to be taken care of.”
Her crew of “aunties” share that sentiment.
Monica Bullard, a certified nurse midwife from Oakland, Calif., was already sewing masks for friends and neighbors when a friend told her about the Auntie Sewing Squad. She immediately decided to use her extra fabric to pitch in.
“The aunties provide me with a community of people all working toward the same goal at a time when we’re lacking a connection with others,” said Bullard, 53, who has sewn 825 masks for former prison inmates, nursing home residents, people who are HIV-positive and Black Lives Matters protesters.
Kenneth Provincial, a volunteer fire chief for South Dakota’s Rosebud Sioux Tribe, is among those who are grateful for the Auntie Sewing Squad.
In the spring, he and his 28-member firefighting unit couldn’t find simple masks to protect them from the coronavirus when responding to calls, he said.
“We’re in the middle of nowhere, and when the pandemic hit, there were no masks to be found,” said Provincial, 53, who also runs a coffee shop and a towing business.
When he was contacted by one of Wong’s “aunties,” “It really meant a lot to us,” he said. “They’ve sent us several shipments of hundreds of masks, and we distribute the extras to children and youth in the tribe. It’s a tremendous gift.”
Tensie Hernandez, who helps farmworkers find housing and get access to food benefits and health care through the group Beatitude House, said masks from the Auntie Sewing Squad have helped protect hundreds of workers and their families along California’s Central Coast.
“Covid has been frightening for everyone, and our essential workers have often been neglected,” said Hernandez, 52.
“Being able to offer them these face masks has been a huge help,” she said. “I’ve been touched by the way the masks have been thoughtfully made and packaged and sent to us with so much love.”
Wong said she’s glad her message of caring comes through with each package.
“The Auntie Sewing Squad isn’t just about us being a workforce, cutting up old bedsheets when we run low on fabric,” she said. “We’re a government shadow aid agency, showing that it’s possible to care for each other during this weird time in history.”
Correction: This story was updated to reflect that Allison Dillard both sewed the masks and took the photo of the blue stacked masks. Additionally, Tom Fowler was the photographer who took the photo of Wong kneeling on the couch.
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