Daniel and Barbara Kim have worked with a crew of volunteers to create masks for communities in need. Photograph by Gabriella Marks. 

AGAINST THE CLEAR PLASTIC BACKDROP of a quilting square ruler, Daniel Kim laid out layers of surgical-blue Halyard 600. The dimpled fabric is normally draped over surgical instrument trays in operating rooms to ensure sterilization. However, during the pandemic, Daniel gave the fabric new life as a face mask.  

He sliced through the layers with a utility knife, creating a collection of rectangles that he passed to his wife, Barbara. She and the fellow community volunteers the Kims recruited spent hours hunched over sewing machines stitching the more than 3,000 facial coverings their Blue Mask Group has distributed.  

Daniel and Barbara Kim’s loosely formed organization was the latest evolution in their years of borderlands advocacy. The couple worked with homeless individuals for decades before turning their attention to refugees at the U.S.–Mexico border in El Paso. “Someone has to speak on behalf of the people who have no voice,” Barbara says.  

Working with volunteers from organizations such as Peace Lutheran Church’s Border Servant Corps, in Las Cruces, the Kims dropped off baby supplies and shuttled asylum seekers to the airport when they flew to meet their sponsors. Barbara soon earned the nickname “La Doña de Burbujas” (Woman of the Bubbles), for blowing bubbles to entertain families living in Chamizal Federal Public Park, in Ciudad Juárez, waiting for their turn to cross the border.  

When the pandemic hit, Barbara, who is high-risk for covid-19, received doctor’s orders to stay home. The duo still wanted to help. “We felt powerless at the beginning of the pandemic,” Barbara says.  

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With PPE in short supply for healthcare professionals and other frontline workers, Barbara and citizens like her throughout the country began sewing cloth masks for them. “For much of my life, there hasn’t been much I could do to help,” she says. “But I could show up with fruit. I could blow bubbles for kids. And then I could make masks.”  

Barbara wanted something better than standard cotton. She started researching materials that could provide a stronger filter. She found it via University of Florida Health, which had started using Halyard 600 for masks. The material is rated N99, which is even more effective than the sought-after N95 masks. Usually, it sits atop trays of surgical tools and goes into the trash before surgery even begins.  

Simultaneously, Dr. Tom Gormley, of Rio Grande Urology, had also discovered this secondary use for the fabric in his research for mask alternatives. He had access to the material, but no one to sew the face coverings. “This is an example of how people can come from different angles with a common goal and work to try to help people out of a tight spot,” he says.  

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Together, they fine-tuned the design. Daniel began assembling kits for the approximately 50 volunteers, many of whom are elderly or immunocompromised. “We live in a town where people are incredibly giving,” Barbara says. “When there’s a crisis, people step up in amazing ways.”  

They have donated the reusable masks to healthcare workers at hospitals and nursing homes, to residents of the Navajo Nation, and to employees, volunteers, and asylum seekers at border shelters.  

Kari Lenander, executive director of Border Servant Corps, remembers when a community of asylum seekers across the border from Sunland Park received a mask donation. “One woman had tears in her eyes,” Lenander says. “She said, ‘Everyone has needs right now. We’re not being forgotten.’”