Staff Writer

BROWNSVILLE — Rachel Ayala and Berta Pena, two former BISD assistant superintendents, have launched “Project Mask,” an effort to sew hundreds of protective masks to support “our medical soldiers battling the invisible enemy” during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Ayala, who retired from the Brownsville Independent School District several years ago, said she began buying some supplies about a month ago after realizing the COVID-19 outbreak could get serious. She said she and Pena were talking Monday night when they came up with the idea of recruiting people to help sew a large quantity of the masks.

She said sewing the masks takes about 10 minutes per mask once the cloth is cut. All that’s needed is a pattern, two non-matching 7-inch by 9-inch pieces of 100 percent cotton cloth, 14 inches of 1/4-inch elastic, plus thread and a sewing machine. She added that the masks aren’t medically effective to stop the coronavirus but do stop germs and are what hospitals and medical clinics are asking for.

“Now that I am retired I’m still part of the community and I want to be part of the community,” she said. “United we stand, divided we fall. I’m telling people to look around the house for scraps of cloth they can cut up. You can get creative. I found some old sheets in good condition, but you can use pillow cases or old shirts or blouses that you don’t wear any more. … I love to sew. My mother taught me how. She said it was part of being a good wife.”

Ayala said she made a mask for her daughter, Hudson Elementary Principal Rachel Rene Ayala, using Dallas Cowboys-themed cloth, and she is wearing it at school while coordinating online learning activities. She said she hopes to convince WalMart to donate a bolt or two of the cloth, which is navy blue with the iconic Dallas helmet, for the project.

“People are panicking. This way they can make their own masks if it makes them feel better, and the medical soldiers will have the masks they need.” She said having a supply of hand-sewn masks available to non-medical workers like those distributing school lunches, store clerks and others will free up the limited supply of N-95 surgical masks for medical personnel treating the sick.

“The good thing is they can throw them in the washing machine and use them over again.”

Ayala said her sister, retired U.S. Navy Cmdr. Elida Medina., used a similar mask, along with a hand-sewn surgical cap, while stationed aboard the USS Comfort off the coast of Vietnam during the Vietnam War. Later, while working at McAllen Medical Center, Medina wanted to brighten up her work station and donned the garb there.

Various patterns and tutorials for sewing a makeshift medical mask are available on YouTube. For additional information, email Ayala at