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How An Artist, A Toy-Maker, A College Student Use Their Skills To Fight The Pandemic

Artists Shawana Brooks and her husband Roosevelt Watson III started the 6 Ft. Away Gallery in their yard in Jacksonville, Florida. They created it as a way to showcase Roosevelt's art at a time when galleries were closed due to the pandemic.
Marc Mangra
Artists Shawana Brooks and her husband Roosevelt Watson III started the 6 Ft. Away Gallery in their yard in Jacksonville, Florida. They created it as a way to showcase Roosevelt's art at a time when galleries were closed due to the pandemic.

Last month, we asked our audience: What are some of the inventive ways that people are addressing COVID-19 challenges in their community?

Dozens of NPR readers wrote in with nominees. Many are people who have found ways to put their special skills and talents to good use. A former toy-maker, laid off from his job, is putting on puppet shows in his living room window for passersby. An artist set up a socially distant art gallery in her backyard. Two siblings are helping local businesses provide low-cost meals to immigrant families in need.

Here are six profiles of volunteers who are making a difference.


Virtual classes fight free time and boredom

In the weeks after March 25, when India announced a nationwide lockdown to battle the coronavirus pandemic, Perpetual Nazareth, an English teacher at Don Bosco High School in Mumbai, India, was flooded with calls from teenage students who were bored and listless.

Although the school had pivoted to online classes, "I could tell that it was a tough time for them and for parents, too," she says. When Nazareth wondered how she could help, Joshua Salins, a former student, offered a suggestion: Why not teach them new hobbies?

Salins had already established a small business called The Hobby Tribe in October 2019 to make it cheaper and easier for people to pursue the kinds of activities that he himself enjoys — singing, making art and playing music. "We would rent a place, hire teachers and gather people who wanted to learn something new," he says. At first, the group offered six courses: dance, guitar, the keyboard, drums, tailoring and drawing Mandala art (an Indian art form that employs circular patterns and shapes) — at budget rates — ranging from a flat fee of $10-$20 for eight sessions.

After the lockdown, The Hobby Tribe ground to a halt, says the 21-year-old founder. Students couldn't attend in-person lessons. So the organization had to reinvent itself. Salins approached his alma mater to see if students would be interested in virtual classes. The response was heartening, says Nazareth, who is not affiliated with the program. Over 100 students signed up in a single day.


After shifting online, The Hobby Tribe hired more teachers and expanded to offer 40 courses, including coding, photography, beauty and makeup tips, cooking and trivia games at an even lower price — $2 for eight sessions.

Cheryl Moniz's 15-year-old daughter Tamara is taking photography lessons from their home in Mumbai. "Kids need an outlet like this. It gives them a chance to relax, keeps them connected and productive," she says.

As word spread, it sparked interest from all over the world, Salins says. Five hundred students are now enrolled. Many are Indians based in the U.S., U.K., Nigeria, the United Arab Emirates, Australia, Cyprus, Hong Kong, Singapore, Oman and Qatar. People of all ages are welcome to join.

"In these tough times, hobbies do more than build character. It's an interesting way to interact with like-minded people," Nazareth says. "They can mold you into the person you want to become."

Kamala Thiagarajan is a freelance journalist based in Madurai, India, who has written for The International New York Times, BBC Travel and Forbes India. You can follow her @kamal_t.

DIY dispensers provide free face masks to all

For residents of 15-mile-long Lopez Island, which sits off the coast of Washington, finding a face mask is pretty easy. Thanks to Chom Greacen, 29, mask dispensers are scattered throughout the island. People can pull a free cloth mask from a dispenser whenever they need one.

Greacen normally conducts energy research in Thailand, but due to travel restrictions, she hasn't been able to continue her work. So she's been devoting her spare time to getting masks to the more than 2,000 islanders.

"Back in March and April, masks [of all types] were difficult to come by or they were expensive," Greacen says. While the islanders mobilized to get N95 masks donated to their EMTs and health care workers, she realized that everyone else would need a mask, too.

In March, Greacen came up with her DIY project, Grab-and-Go Masks. "I thought of the little sanitary product vending machines that are in public bathrooms," Greacen says. She made a prototype of a hanging rectangular box using leftover campaign signs from her husband's run for the school board. The durable, plastic material would protect the masks within.

The masks are also DIY, made using blue disposable shop towels made of polypropylene — they're heavy duty paper towels typically used for cleaning up grease, oils and spills in automotive repair shops. The recommendation for the material came from Dr. Peter Tsai, the inventor of the N95 respirator.

To date, 40 volunteers have helped make some 6,000 masks using kits — complete with directions and supplies — provided by Greacen. Volunteers also help restock the dispensers.

Greacen has not spent a cent on the project. Shop towels for the masks are donated by the Islands Marine Center (IMC), a local marina and boat dealership, which has two of Greacen's dispensers on its property.

"It was great that Chom sprung into action [at the start of the pandemic] because there was no way to get masks whatsoever," Tim Slattery, general manager of the IMC, wrote in an email to NPR. "We work in an essential business that was still up and running, so having masks available was a must."

Today, dispensers can be found all over the island, indoors and outdoors. They're in high-traffic areas such as grocery stores, a bakery, the fudge shop, the ferry dock and the farmer's market. Some hang on the front doors of businesses for customers to grab as they enter.

Greacen plans to keep the project going as long as masks are needed.

Lopez Island has only had three cases of the coronavirus to date, according to the San Juan County Health Department. Dr. Robert Wilson, the island physician who treated and diagnosed the three cases, says Greacen's promotion of mask usage and making them available to the public has been great.

"[Lopez Island] is your typical small town," Wilson says. "People here are more connected and more likely to get involved. They're interested in keeping each other safe."

Nadia Whitehead is a freelance journalist and science writer. Her work has appeared in Science, The Washington Post and NPR. Find her on Twitter @NadiaMacias.

A socially distant gallery brings art to the neighborhood

In early April, Shawana Brooks, an artist and a curator in Jacksonville, Fla., had a big idea: What if she started an art gallery in her backyard?

Because of the pandemic, her husband Roosevelt Watson III, also an artist, couldn't show his exhibit the Way Maker Series to the public. The eight-piece mixed-media project honors historical figures from Jacksonville who have fought for the rights and freedoms of the Black community, such as William Stetson Kennedy, who infiltrated and investigated the Ku Klux Klan in the 1940s, and James Weldon Johnson, who brought attention to racism and lynching as a member of the NAACP.

So Brooks convinced Watson to put his works outside their home and share it with the neighborhood. She created a sign encouraging others to enjoy the art while practicing social distancing.

And that's how 6 Ft. Away Gallery was born. The gallery, which sits on a half-acre of land on their property, is free and open daily to everyone — rain or shine. As in any gallery, the art is for sale.

Hundreds of people have already visited, Brooks says, and they now host backyard discussions where Watson talks about his artwork.

Watson says the gallery has given him an opportunity to share his art at a time when there aren't many opportunities for artists.

Brooks and Watson are planning to feature more artists in their backyard in the future. But for now, they are raising money to help local Black artists struggling to find work. The project, called Color Jax Blue, uses those funds to pay artists to create large-scale murals that encourage the Black community to vote.

Karen Barnes-Rivera, a former colleague of Brooks and a local business leader who nominated 6 Ft. Away Gallery for this piece, says the pop-up gallery and Color Jax Blue have offered hope to the Jacksonville community during the pandemic.

"These projects remind us that creativity, art, vibrancy and a sense of community can create resilience," Barnes-Rivera wrote in an email to NPR.

Nadia Whitehead is a freelance journalist and science writer. Her work has appeared in Science, The Washington Post and NPR. Find her on Twitter @NadiaMacias.

Former bee-suit makers sew masks for farmers

Susana Gómez Luz normally sews beekeeping overalls and veils for Maya Ixil, a cooperative of over 200 small-scale farmers that harvests, sells and exports coffee and honey in the remote village of Santa Avelina, Guatemala. But during the pandemic, the 23-year-old switched gears to learn how to make face masks, an idea spearheaded by the co-op, which paid for materials and her labor.

"I downloaded an image of the design and practiced it five times before getting started," she says. "It was easy."

With the help of two colleagues, Gómez Luz manufactured reusable face masks, made of finely meshed cloth with extra lining inside. Since May, they have sewn more than 200 masks and donated them to most of the indigenous farmers and beekeepers in the co-op.

Wearing a mask to prevent the spread of the coronavirus is mandatory in Guatemala. But a tight-fighting, multi-layered mask goes for about $2.50. With the cutback in hours due to lockdown restrictions, some workers make as little as $5 a day.

Although lockdown restrictions are now easing, farmers have only been able to work half days since the national quarantine was imposed on March 17, due to a 4 p.m. curfew that was lifted at the end of July. And while their wages have halved, the price of basic food basket items like eggs has risen by up to 50%, says co-op manager Miguel Ostuma.

The donated masks have been a huge help, says Domingo de la Cruz Toma, a 52-year-old beekeeper with the co-op. "It's been really beneficial."

Marcela Pino, co-director of the U.S. nonprofit Food 4 Farmers — which works with coffee farming communities like the Maya Ixil — says this resourcefulness is characteristic of the vibrant co-op. "They work so hard ... and they never lose spirit," says Pino.

Sophie Foggin is a journalist based in Medellin, Colombia, covering politics, human rights, history and justice in Latin America.

Local restaurants offer cheap comfort food to families in need

Siblings Esther Chong, 31, and Sam Chong, 34, knew they wanted to help families in need in Palisades Park, N.J., during the pandemic. The town, which has a large upper-middle class population, is home to the largest percentage, at 64%, of immigrants of any municipality in New Jersey. Many are of Asian and Latino descent. And many are undocumented and haven't had access to unemployment benefits and stimulus checks during the crisis.

So on April 6, the pair — who sell mobile phone accessories online as their day jobs — started Our Community Dinner Table (CDTable) to provide food to families in need. Using funds donated by the community, the Chongs buy pre-packaged dinners — at an average of about $6 each — from struggling locally run restaurants, helping to provide them with some income. Then, working with CDTable volunteers, they distribute the meals to families for free in the public library's underground parking lot, Monday through Friday.

Recipients queue on spray-painted lines, 6 feet apart for social distancing, to choose their meal for the day: usually Italian, Korean or Latin American.

"Every ethnicity's idea of comfort food is different," says Esther. "In America, a lot of people think of chicken noodle soup. For Asian communities, maybe it's more like rice porridge. We wanted this to be a source of comfort as well."

So far, CDTable has served nearly 16,000 meals — 300 a day at its peak in June — and raised more than $90,000 through grants and fundraising. Most of the funds go toward buying more meals as well as supplies like bags for the meal and personal protective equipment for volunteers. CDTable now partners with about 10 restaurants and has 10 to 15 volunteers who show up on a regular basis, including Mayor Chris Chung, who has helped distribute meals almost every day.

"The impact [of CDTable] has been enormous," says Chung, for both recipients and restaurants.

James Chang, assistant manager of Jin Go Gae, a longstanding Korean catering company, says their business took a "big hit" when large gatherings ceased because of the pandemic.

Providing discounted meals to CDTable has been a consistent source of income as well as a way to share their food with their community. "It gives us real joy," says Chang.

Joanne Lu is a freelance journalist who covers global poverty and inequity. Her work has appeared in Humanosphere, The Guardian, Global Washington and War is Boring. Follow her on Twitter: @joannelu

A window puppet show to entertain passersby

After being laid off from his job making toys for animals at Brookfield Zoo in Chicago in early April, Matthew Owens was looking for a way to pass the time at home in the pandemic. So he decided to revive his longtime love of making puppets. A few weeks later, he started a project called the Lockdown Puppet Theater. Every Saturday afternoon since then, he has put on free 30-minute puppet shows for passersby from his second-story living room window.

The circus-themed show features characters such as the Tattooed Man, clowns and a high diver whom Owens drops from his window into a glass of water that his wife places on the sidewalk before the show.

The audience favorite is a toad puppet named Yoshi who lip syncs to a 1950s Japanese yodeler.

Owens now has over 50 different puppets, each of which he makes by hand. Owens does not take donations and pays for the materials with his own funds.

"I just want people to be happy and to have something to smile about," says Owens.

The show has become a local hit. Today, anywhere from 20 to 50 people, adults and children alike, line up to watch the shows. Since July, the state of Illinois has allowed public gatherings of 50 or fewer people; previously this was restricted to 10 or fewer.

For his part, Owens does remind the audience to maintain social distancing and wear masks throughout the show — and, for the most part, he says, people abide.

Emily Landon, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Chicago, says audience members need to be responsible and take precautions for their safety. They should disperse, for example, if the crowd becomes too large.

Landon adds that Owens could end or pause the show if the audience is not taking those safety precautions. "In my mind, the sort of ethical responsibility would be to post a sign saying, 'Please stay 6 feet apart, please wear face coverings,' and if more than 50 people gather, then I have to stop," she says.

Hannah Long, a local Chicago resident who has seen the show twice with her two young kids, says the show was a reminder to her family that there are still "good and lighthearted things in the world" — and also restored a sense of community missing since the pandemic began, she adds.

"Some people say the show is the highlight of their week," Owens says. "Despite the fact that they are wearing masks, I am pretty confident the audience is smiling underneath."

Jessica Craig is an intern on NPR's science desk.

Thank you to everyone who nominated a problem-solver in your community. We enjoyed reading through them!

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