A Muay Thai fighter and fashion designer is reappropriating her skills, and her boxing shorts, after seeing a desperate need for protective masks in her New York City neighborhood.
Queens native Jessica Ng started sewing homemade masks after seeing how hard-hit her borough, friends and family from the COVID-19 outbreak. Queens has the highest number of COVID-19 cases in New York, and is home to Elmhurst Hospital, which has been called the new “epicenter of the epicenter” of the coronavirus pandemic.
“It broke my heart to see first-hand this outbreak hit so close to home, along with the spike of racially charged hate violence against Asian Americans,” she said. Ng -- who was working at a lingerie start-up and training for her next fight before the pandemic hit -- lives 10 minutes from Elmhurst, and said she was struck one day by how the line outside the hospital looked like a photo from the Great Depression.
“I have family and friends on the front lines. Listening to their experiences at the hospitals and local clinics with the lack of PPE and resources while working beyond exhaustion was incomprehensible. Two medical staff passed away from contracting COVID-19 -- both who worked with a family friend at Mt Sinai. That's when this crisis really weighed on me and I felt a personal responsibility to help.”
She discovered that medical professionals were being required to reuse their 1-time use masks as personal protective equipment is running low. “My friend's mother who is a nurse and another nurse friend (separate hospitals) had to use their same N95 mask for a week. To prolong the usage, they would wear homemade masks over their N95s.”
So she got to work making masks for medical staff in NYC and Long Island hospitals who needed them, getting 35 masks into the hands of essential workers within the first week. “These are people who are friends, family member of friends, and all through word of mouth asking for them.”
With growing orders and facing a shortage of elastic with trim and craft stores closed, Ng turned to her own wardrobe -- and found 10 years worth of gently-worn Muay Thai shorts.”With my design background I knew Muay Thai shorts are traditionally made with narrow tunneled elastic. I cut apart a pair of a size large shorts and was able to make 20 masks!”
She also made an Instagram story and post suggesting where people can repurpose elastics and ties for masks at home, for example camisole straps, bra straps, drawstrings in sweatpants, gym shorts and shoelaces. Different medical professionals ask for slightly different fabrications, so she makes sure to provide exactly what they need.
Once made, Ng sends the masks directly in the mail or through a friend who delivers them directly to the staff at the hospital, via curbside pick up. “When we see their faces as they pick up the package from afar, the gratitude and appreciation btw both parties is just incredible and heartfelt.”
Making masks has also become personal for Ng. It started after talking with a mailman who didn’t have a mask due to a shortage at the station. “My father is 63 years old and has dedicated 30+ years to the USPS. I want him to see his future grandchildren. Our family cannot live without him. He delivered mail through 9-11 and now this.” She has a friend who works at an Amazon warehouse who had no mask. A friend’s mother at LaGuardia who has no mask.
“These essential workers are the backbone of our economy - and our families,” Ng said. “What I'm able to produce isn't making a dent. But if I could provide masks for our essential workers and medical professionals on the front lines so that they can do their job with a little more confidence and ease with that extra layer of protection - it is the least I can do.”
As Ng channels her energy into making masks, she says serving a need and a purpose has provided some relief from the “suffocating” reports of a surge of hate crimes against Asian Americans both globally and in her backyard. Ng believes the mindset of “othering” and blame will continue beyond the pandemic, as seen after 9/11.
However fabricating these protective masks has not only given a purpose, but a way to connect. “Now I get daily requests and messages of heartfelt gratitude and love from people across all party lines, of all backgrounds and political views.”