Nichole Speaks

Even as the coronavirus pandemic has upended business as usual for millions of Washington residents, Nichole Speaks, a senior studying psychology at EWU, has gone all in on a new enterprise: working to ensure that some of our region’s most vulnerable persons—and the people that care for them—get the facemasks they need to stay safe.

In addition to her studies, Speaks works full-time as a member of the management team at an acute medical detox facility in Lynnwood, Washington. It’s a rewarding but challenging job. COVID-19 has only exacerbated those challenges, particularly for nursing staff who risk exposure to the virus on a daily basis.

Early on in the crisis, Speaks, a can-do person who in February received Eastern’s 2020 President’s Student Civic Leadership Award, recognized that her facility’s stock of facemasks and other PPEs wasn’t going to cut it.

“I was anxious about the fact that my nursing staff would soon be left without proper personal protective equipment, including but not limited to masks,” she says. “I thought there was no better way to help than to provide them with handmade masks. I wanted to do something, and that was the ‘something’ that I could do.”

Speaks figured about 100 cloth masks would do the trick. Unfortunately, she admits, she’s a far-from-expert seamstress.

“As an inexperienced sewer, I knew that it would take me quite a bit of time to sew 100 masks, so I reached out to my community for assistance,” Speaks says.

Within minutes, community members were volunteering to help. So many reached out, in fact, that Speaks soon realized a more formal way to manage the mask making was required. Thus the Gratitude Masks Facebook page was born.

“The name Gratitude Masks came from the gratitude I felt from the outpouring of support, the gratitude put into the masks as we make them for the heroes who are on the front lines and the gratitude from the recipients who wear them,” she says. “My attempt to reach out for a ‘few helpers’ has turned into well over 200 members. It’s growing by the day, and we have delivered almost 3,000 masks to date.”

Speaks says she was so impressed by her community’s response—and the scale of ongoing need—that she thought her experience might be useful at the regional level.   

After connecting with the founder stopthebug.org, a larger effort to provide PPEs for first responders, health-care professionals and others who must have them, Speaks became the lead in the organization’s mask division. “Our masks are not only being delivered to local hospitals, EMS, local police and fire departments as well as other front-line hero’s, we are setting a standard for the rest of the country to follow and they are coming to our group for assistance,” she says.  

Speaks, of course, is not alone in stepping up to supply masks to those putting themselves at risk to battle the virus—since the CDC issued their revised recommendations on masks, dozens of Eagle Strong students, staff and faculty members have answered the call to assist.

Among the more notable is Mary Lewan, a recent magna cum laude graduate in geography from Eastern who is currently pursuing a master’s degree in geographic information and public anthropology at the university.

Lewan, who boasts considerable sewing skills, is working with the American Sewing Guild to make protective face masks for first responders. The American Sewing Guild provides all of the materials and pays 25 cents per mask.

Lewan assembles the masks and delivers them to the Guild, which then donates them to first responders. Lewan has also made and provided face masks for local Cheney businesses, including the OWL Pharmacy and NorthStar Taps, using her own materials and supplies.

You can learn more about the American Sewing Guild’s mask program, as well as download their free patterns for making your own masks, at asg.org.

We know many of you in various departments and units are also planning and doing some special things—so please share with us by submitting your Eagle Strong story at inside@ewu.edu. Please visit ewu.edu/strong to learn more about the university’s efforts.