Covering Up, With Gratitude


A student mask-maker boosts critical efforts to contain the coronavirus

by Eastern Magazine

Even as the coronavirus pandemic has upended business as usual for millions, Nichole Speaks, a senior studying psychology at EWU, went 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 — got the face masks they needed to stay safe.

In addition to her studies, Speaks is employed 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 exacerbated those challenges, particularly for nursing staff who risked 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 face masks and other PPEs wasn’t going to cut it.

Nichole Speaks

“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.” Those members have since produced thousands of masks.

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