When Hiemi Haines explored a stash of materials left over from a long-shuttered children's clothing business run by her mother, Jessica Kim, in the building at 9935 East Colfax Avenue that the 83-year-old Kim still owns, she found a trove of cloth, elastic and thread. Soon Haines was making masks for friends and family members.
"At first I made the masks to send to my daughter on the East Coast, who is a doctor, but obviously these are not medical grade, and they really need more than than just homemade items," says Haines. "I asked my mom, 'What do you want me to do?' And she said she wanted to do something to help her tenants and the City of Aurora."
Kim has helped the city before. About seven years ago, she was approached by Aurora officials who suggested that her building could house several businesses that would help improve the neighborhood. One was Wenter Shyu's Third Culture Bakery, a California implant specializing in gluten-free mochi muffins and butter mochi doughnuts. Then came Lady Justice Brewing, which donates a large share of its profits to help women and girls.
While cleaning out the area now occupied by Lady Justice, Kim and Haines found a huge stash of materials from the long-closed clothing-manufacturing business. "My mom and I got in a big fight, and I was like, 'We need to throw it all way,' and she said, 'No, it's good stuff,'" says Haines, who conceded to her mother. "There was just so much stuff in there, so we put it in our basement."
That's where the boxes stayed until March, when Haines found an easy face mask pattern. She ventured down to the basement, and the first box she opened contained cute pieces of printed cloth cut to the exact size needed for protective masks.
Though her mother is an expert sewer, Haines didn't have a knack for it, she admits. Still, she started making about five masks a day as a way to help out during the coronavirus pandemic. Her mother got wind of her work and joined in, creating about a hundred masks daily.
Because Kim suffers from glaucoma, her daughter insisted that she stop making masks after they'd hit a thousand. But Haines carried on, creating almost-no-sew versions with simple filters and just a few well-placed stitches to hold everything together. She's donating all of the masks, and has given dozens to her mother's three tenants, including a newly opened outpost of Baba & Pop’s Handmade Pierogi, a farmers' market staple.
"They’re so great, and they’ve become family to us," says Baba & Pop's co-founder Katherine Yurek. "We haven’t had to buy any masks at all, which is a huge help to us at this time, and they also had them made for us at the beginning of the crisis, so we actually had our masks when we needed them the most and were able to continue working without a hiccup."
Lady Justice, Baba & Pop's and Third Culture Bakery are all open for takeout and delivery orders. Haines has supplied the businesses with masks not just for staffers, but for customers who might have forgotten to bring them.
"Everything about what they’re doing for our bakery and the community makes us so proud to have them as our landlords," says Shyu, co-owner of Third Culture Bakery. "We wear the masks her mom made us daily during open hours, and when we’re out and about making deliveries and such. She’s also dropped some extras off so we can hand them out to customers, and people have been very kind and excited about them."
All told, Haines and her mother have made over 3,500 masks that have been donated far and wide; Haines just gave 120 to the Navajo Nation.
"In early April I said I wasn’t going to do more masks, then every night I am making more masks," Haines says. Her husband helps speed up the process by threading the needle.
Haines is also donating supplies to mask makers around town. She plans to continue doing so until the materials run out or people can stop wearing masks, whichever comes first.
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