Margaret Mead said “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever had.” This quote is reflective of the work the Austin Mask Exchange has been providing to the citizens of Austin Texas.

I had the pleasure to interview founding member Liam Kozma. Liam who is a Major for the United States Army graciously shared some of his time with me to talk about  the Austin Mask Exchange.

In the spring during March and April as information regarding COVID19 was coming out Liam realized that face masks were going to be needed. He did some research and felt that cloth face masks would be the perfect solution so he did what any creative person does. He bought a sewing machine, fabric, AND taught himself to sew making face  masks for his family and friends. Once Liam had taken care of everyone he had extra masks he wanted to give to those in need so he took to Reddit.  What happened next became the perfect storm of good. It was being at the right place at the right time.

When he posted about the face masks on Reddit individuals like LeeAnn Marie, Kelly Noriega, and others joined his quest in providing cloth face masks to people who needed them. This core group of people, like many others, were feeling helpless in how they could help out. They all were making masks and had extras to share.  It was figuring out how they could provide them to people who needed them that became the challenge.

As the group began to share information and resources they recognized a central formal system was needed. They identified there was a gaping hole in the community where people needed face masks, yet did not have the means to get them. So this group of helpers created the Austin Mask Exchange.

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” quote by Mr. Rogers

There are three pillars of the Austin Mask Exchange. The pillars are to Learn, Find, and Request. These pillars serve as the methodology to ensure that the entire community of Austin has access to cloth face masks that meet their individual needs. 

“When Austinites help Austinites we all win.”  Austin Mask Exchange

The centralized system of the mask exchange, which uses Smartsheet to track requests goes like this. An individual puts in a request for one face mask or many depending upon what is needed. The request will also determine what specifics need to be considered in making the face masks. Does the person wear glasses and need a mask with nose wire, have a beard and need room for that, how about a filter? This group of mask makers, who pay for their own supplies, and do this on their own time, want to make masks that the person getting them needs. The masks are customized with thoughtfulness and care to be exactly what the person receiving them has requested. The next step is how to get the face masks from the mask maker to those receiving them. Liam reported the distribution of the masks is a problem the group has encountered. Mailing the masks can be costly. There have been individuals who have volunteered to be runners who get the masks from the masks makers and deliver them to the recipients. If you are in a position to be able to pay, the Mask Exchange will help to direct people to a small business or vendor to make you a mask. Educating the community of Austin on what is available in regards to masks along with connecting people with the right mask maker is a fundamental purpose of the group. This is not about mass mask production. The Austin Mask Exchange is about removing any barriers to any person in need of a face mask that is right for them.

Liam shared that he loves being  part of the Austin Mask Exchange. It does not feel at all like a drain on his time. It seems if you asked the 65 and growing volunteers who are the heart and soul of this committed group of helpers about how they feel about this they might say the same thing. With the coronavirus people were feeling helpless. They wanted to help their community of Austin and give back, yet did not know where to go. The Austin Mask Exchange provides the opportunity to help.

As the Austin Mask Exchange evolves and grows it is in the process of submitting paperwork to become a non-profit. Erin Kozma has joined the group as a nonprofit advisor. While the group has received a few donations they want to be transparent with how the money is spent. They are now identifying ways to connect with the Spanish speaking communities to provide masks. Along with doing good for others good friendships has been made with this group. As they keep taking steps forward to lift others up there is great potential and possibility with what the Austin Mask Exchange will do next. 

Sometimes in our life we have experiences that change the people we are. For Liam this experience has opened his eyes to the generosity, desire to do good, and compassion in his Austin community. It has also highlighted how all of us experience the world in different ways. One thing that is easy for one person to access might be impossible for another person. When we keep our eyes open we can see a need where we can help. In doing so we can lift other people up and perhaps lift ourselves up creating a ripple of good that grows and grows.

It is crucial to recognize there are 65 and growing volunteers in the Austin Mask Exchange.  From the mask makers who buy their own materials, making masks for long hours, to the runners to deliver masks and everybody in between it is important to give credit to everyone who is doing good just to do good. To help out their community of Austin. To say to their fellow Austinites we see you, we hear you, and we will help you.

Kindness Champions is proud and honored to spotlight the Austin Mask Exchange. This group shows how the group of committed citizens of Austin Texas can change the world. Thank you for all you are doing to show the community of Austin there is help and there is hope.

For more information regarding the Austin Mask Exchange or to contact them to help out or if you need a mask here is their information:

Twitter and Instagram: @ATXMaskExchange