Million Mask Challenge: How a Certified LGBTBE® Owner is Saving Lives

| By Sarah Jester

Change does not occur on its own. For progress to be made, a changemaker must step forward and take action. That is precisely what Certified LGBT Business Enterprise® owner Andrea Ruiz-Hays has done throughout her career, both in the environmental sustainability space and now even more so in an effort to save lives during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ruiz-Hays has two decades of executive leadership experience at Walt Disney World Resort, where she pioneered sustainability efforts. Following her departure, she realized that she still had more to give to those around her.

“I personally have been passionate about our environment since I was a young child,” she said. “I had that longing to want to help communities not only set targets but help them implement them in that space. Let’s do what’s good for your business and for the environment.”

Out of this longing grew Eco Strategies Group, a Certified LGBTBE® sustainability consulting firm. Through her firm, Ruiz-Hays consults for corporations, organizations, and entrepreneurs to help them virtually outline and implement sustainability strategies and plans.

In recent weeks, businesses across the nation like Ruiz-Hays’ have seen operations grind to a halt with the growing spread of COVID-19. Yet, she has found a significant way to continue to make change in the world - one that could save lives.

“I saw an interview online with the CFO of a hospital who was showing how to make cloth masks because they were admitting that they were low on supplies,” she explained. “I thought to myself, ‘My gosh, I could do this!’”

Before last year, Ruiz-Hays had not touched a sewing machine since she was in middle school. This past fall, she happened to see that her local library, the downtown Orlando branch of the Orange County Public Library, was offering a free class that promised to teach participants how to sew Harry Potter robes. Two completed robes later, she had armed herself with knowledge that is now proving to be extraordinarily valuable.

“I kept hearing about the lack of resources for common personal protective equipment materials and that our healthcare professionals didn’t have these,” Ruiz-Hays said. “Later on that night, I talked to my wife and I said, ‘I think I need to get the machine out tomorrow.’”

After studying up on recommended mask materials, Ruiz-Hays purchased as many mask supplies as she could from her local Joann Fabrics, including over 50 yards of a cotton-poly blend known for its breathability and effectiveness at filtering out microscopic particles. Some nurses are now providing Ruiz-Hays with polypropylene halyard, a material that is used to wrap sterile utensils in medical facilities. An anesthesiology team in Florida is also repurposing this material for masks.

“Nurses have been sending me pictures of used masks that have been doused in chemicals sitting in a plastic bag, hoping that they’ve been sanitized,” she explained. “So what I’m making and what other people are making is washable and dryable.”

Ruiz-Hays says that the material she purchased will make about 1,000 additional masks.

“The first few were a little fumbly,” she said. “Then it was taking 15 to 20 minutes per mask; now it’s taking me about 5 minutes per mask. I’m now making about 50 masks a day.”

Ruiz-Hays began posting her completed work online and received a massive response. She then had the idea to connect other individuals that wanted to sew masks with healthcare professionals medical facilities that were accepting them. From this notion sprung a Facebook group that now has over several hundred members from across the nation and has been growing rapidly each day. It’s called Million Mask Challenge - We NEED YOU! In it, group members have been posting sewing tutorials and their completed work, as well as maintaining a running log of hospitals, facilities, and healthcare professionals across the country that are accepting homemade masks.

“If you have a machine, get it out!” said Ruiz-Hays. “I’m willing to have video chats with people to show you how simple this is. I have non sewers that are helping with logistics - just because you can’t sew doesn’t mean you can’t help!”

This mindset carries over into Ruiz-Hays’ plan for her business going forward.

“The biggest area of opportunity is entrepreneurs, because they’re hit the hardest,” she explained. “It shouldn’t be just Fortune 100 and 500 companies getting the access to these answers and resources to implement sustainability practices.”

In this time of uncertainty, Ruiz-Hays wants to keep her focus local.

“If I can show local business owners how to save on their costs, be operationally efficient, and be good for the planet, that’s great,” she said. “How can they reopen their shop? What can I do?”

What can YOU do? Check out the Million Mask Challenge to find out.  And for additional ways to help you, your business, and the LGBT community during this time, visit the NGLCC COVID-19 Resource Hub for the LGBT Business Community.