From Costume Shop to Making Masks for Kaiser

An MJC student makes protective masks in the costume shop.It was the first week of remote operations and costume designer Mary Reilly, who goes by “merry stitches” on email, received a call from her boss, Dean of Humanities, Michael Sundquist: “I want to propose we think of using the costume shop to make face masks for health care workers and I would like students to be involved.”

Reilly, a seasoned costume designer who has worked on large scale and complex commercial theater productions, knew nothing about face masks. She recalls: “I started researching and researching, dimensions, materials and how we would social distance this project in the costume shop. I also researched who could use our masks and just like that I had a contact at Kaiser on Dale, who could use our masks as part of their hygiene project.”

Rubidia Cortez uses a sewing machine to assemble a protective maskThis was not going to be a project Reilly would do on her own and it was the perfect project for Federal Work Study students who had already been trained on the sewing machines. Every semester the costume shop provides employment for several Federal Work Study students and as a result many of them end up loving the experience so much they stay for the duration of their time at MJC, or even add theater studies to their subject matter.

Such has been the case for Krista Beal. A MJC Class of 2020 graduate, who will be starting in the Fall at Oregon State University as a Theater major, Beal expressed how even though her Federal Work Study has ended, she decided to work on the masks as a volunteer, because “it is the right thing to do. I needed to do my part and these efforts go a long way.”

MJC Student Tomas Lopez, making protective masksRubidia Cortez, studying psychology, moved to Modesto from Los Angeles. She has really enjoyed how nice and welcoming people are here. She started working in the costume shop in the Fall of 2019 as a Federal Work Study employee and shared how the experience “Taught me to work together as a team, how to come together to finish a project and to contribute to a common cause. It feels really good to be working on these masks.” Cortez’ goal is be become a marriage and family therapist and wants to transfer to a state school in Los Angeles. She needs 20 more units before that happens. In the meantime, she will continue making masks, currently as a volunteer, for as long as is needed.

Cortez might be on to something. Given we face a new normal, and social distancing will be with us for a while, Reilly plans to produce enough masks to distribute to students when the college permits students back on campus. That will require a lot of masks.

A protective mask being pieced togetherTomas Lopez, a native of Patterson, started his initial education career at MJC in 1985 in the Fashion Merchandizing Program. He moved to LA in 1988 to move in the garment industry, as a Manager of a sample room. In 2010 he returned to Patterson to help care for his father. By 2013 he had finished a cosmetology program and worked doing hair and make-up until returning to MJC in 2019 as a theater major with an emphasis in costume design. It was through chat on Canvas with Reilly that he learned about the mask making project for Kaiser.

“I was going to do it anyway, because I have many friends who are nurses and my brother’s co-worker tested positive for the virus, so I made them for my family to stay safe. I love sewing, so I will be spending the summer working on the specific mask and style for Kaiser. A good mask is when you cannot blow a match or candle, while wearing it. My masks will be worn on top of the N-95's nurses are wearing and can also be washed.”

This summer as others might be basking in the sun, or reading books, these MJC students will be dedicating their time to keeping us all safe in this new normal of social distancing.