Story and Photos by Meredith Embry.
Halfway around the world, two friends separated by COVID-19 find a way to stay connected while supporting refugee women and hospital workers.
Sew Masks Save Doctors is a nonprofit organization created to directly support refugee women who sew masks and the healthcare workers who need them, during COVID-19. Sew Masks Save Doctors partners with Vickery Trading Company, a nonprofit social enterprise in Dallas that employs refugee women to sew masks that are then donated to hospitals and clinics locally and in other parts of the country.
When Problems Meet Possibilities
Tia Hsieh and Jade Nguyen are the 17-year-old co-founders of the Sew Masks Save Doctors (SMSD) nonprofit and fundraising initiative, Hockamask Project. When SMSD was first created, the two seniors at The Hockaday School in Dallas recruited volunteers to donate fabric and other materials to Vickery Trading Company in order to provide the needed materials for refugee women to sew masks for healthcare workers.
The students chose Vickery Trading Company as a partner because of the opportunities and skills the organization provides to help refugee women reach financial stability. Jade explains that “the refugee community is close to our hearts and a big motivation behind Sew Masks Save Doctors. We wanted to employ refugee women and at the same time donate masks to hospitals.”
This makes sense as both Tia and Jade have a vested interest in the immigrant community. Tia is a first-generation American of Taiwanese ancestry, and Jade was originally born in Canada, but then moved to Vietnam, and has studied in the United States. Though currently living in Vietnam, she holds full citizenship in all three countries. Prior to COVID-19, both Jade and Tia enjoyed working with the local refugee population by volunteering at Heart House, helping children after school with their homework as well as with social-emotional skills. Northwest Community Center, the location of the particular Heart House where they volunteered, also has a robust ESL program and the two young women developed friendships with some of the refugee women they met.
When COVID-19 hit, Tia and Jade were very concerned about the effects it would have on the refugee women they had met through volunteering. “One woman,” Tia remembers, “had explained to me that she had debt because of travel to this country and resettlement fees. One of her biggest concerns was being able to get a full-time job to pay off that debt quickly so that she could be financially stable and start her ‘real-life’ in the USA. And I remember thinking, what happened to her? Is she ok?” At the same time, the abysmal shortage of PPE for healthcare workers around the country became a national crisis and this too, worried the young women.
With the convergence of these two concerns, Tia and Jade wondered how they could help and how to do so with one of them on the other side of the world. A complex idea formed between the two: make masks, sell masks, form a nonprofit, make more masks with Vickery Trading Company, donate them to hospitals. “We had to learn so much really fast” Tia remembers, “and talk to a lot of people we were scared to talk to. But we did it.”
After drafts of ideas and plans and phone calls and Zoom calls and texts and emails, Sew Masks Save Doctors came to life. Jade laughs, “We thought about Sew Masks Save Doctors day in and day out. My last thought before sleep at night was the nonprofit and also my very first thought upon waking.” A few weeks later, they realized the need to raise more money to employ refugee women, many of whom were without jobs due to the pandemic, to make more masks for healthcare workers. The Hockamask Project was created to raise these additional funds.
A Dream Realized
Tia explains that “the Hockaday community really came together–some donating the fabric for the masks, others cutting the fabric and elastic. There is something for everyone to do: donate fabric, cut the fabric, pick up materials, sew, make cards for health care workers, and more.” Brownie and Girl Scout troops from Hockaday approached Tia and Jade, eager to help. These younger schoolmates made cards by hand to include with the donated masks. Tia and Jade decided to include hand-made cards to go along with the donated masks to make sure that their younger school mates were able to participate in the Hockamask Project.
100% of the proceeds from the Hockamask Project go to Vickery Trading Company to employ refugee women who sew the masks that are then donated to local hospitals. Stephanie Giddens, Founder and President of Vickery Trading Company, says that “not only did [Tia and Jade] help spread the word about our efforts to make masks for those on the front lines, but they created the Hockamask Project which has allowed us to continue employing our sew associates. They created and produced a model to fulfill these needs that they saw in the community.”
A Project Grows Up
The project grew quickly. “We have donated over 2,500 masks and raised over $9,000 to help refugee women remain employed!” Jade explains excitedly. Tia nods in agreement. The Hockamasks are made from the school’s uniform plaid and are pleated like a traditional school skirt. The fabrics used come from the Hockaday Resale Boutique or other donations of Hockaday uniforms. “We wanted to be sure we were using a sustainable model,” Jade explains. Environmental consciousness is an important belief for this group of young women.
Once the Hockamask Project launched, Jade and Tia quickly realized they needed more members on their team. Enter Riya Malhotra, Suzanne Baxter, Emilia Callahan, all incoming seniors with Jade and Tia at The Hockaday School in Dallas.
Riya and Suzanne are now Co-Directors of the Hockamask Project. Riya oversees all the volunteers, logistics, stocking, and supplies so that the volunteers have what they need to make the masks. She packages these supplies and coordinates the pickup of mask making kits and subsequent delivery of completed masks back to the group. Suzanne manages the mask orders and organizes the logistics of packaging and delivery. “We package the masks with little thank you cards and then drop them off to be mailed or if they are local, I deliver them myself.” The larger orders going to hospitals are boxed at the facility and shipped out to places like Baylor Scott & White, Medical City Dallas, and even some smaller clinics locally. Additionally, they have received requests from ER departments in New York City as well as other states and are excited to be able to provide masks all over the U.S.
Emilia, the newest member of the group, handles all social media accounts. Her primary responsibility is to use social media to advertise, attract donors, and encourage volunteers. Emilia coordinates the posting of selfies from health care workers sporting their beautiful masks: “It’s so fun to see our masks actually being used!” Additionally, Emilia praises the many volunteers who have made the Hockamask Project so successful. To thank the volunteers and support buying locally, the group partnered with businesses to provide gift cards to use as raffle prizes for the volunteers. “We want them to feel special. They deserve the recognition because they’ve been working so hard,” Emilia adds. Many of the businesses donating gift cards to the project are owned by Hockaday alumni, such as Asian Mint and Alto. Other contributing businesses include Bird Bakery, Interabang Books and Cotton Island Boutique.
Learning about Realities
Each of the students were profoundly impacted by the experience of responding to an acute need within the community. For Jade, “Learning how to follow through with an idea, becoming a nonprofit, was a long process and challenging. I also learned how to lead a team with empathy and to foster a relationship within a team. This experience has helped me gain a lot of clarity about who I am and what matters to me. To really understand myself. It has shown me how very much community service is a part of who I am.”
Suzanne found what was missing from her life during the pandemic: meaningful connections. “When we were sent home from school, a lot of the programs we volunteered for were put on hold and I felt like I had lost my purpose. This project gave me back that sense of purpose. Having a team is very important when everything else is crazy.”
To Tia, “This journey has shown me how much impact five high schoolers can make in a community. It started as a local initiative but is now providing masks to health care workers all over the country, and although we can’t solve the pandemic, we are doing our best to help our community and to bring more hope and positive light into society.”
The challenges the group encountered, and how they met those challenges, were a meaningful takeaway for Riya. “It was very unexpected [having to meet and coordinate everything online],” she says, “but we have adapted our ways to communicate and certainly adjusted to it and how we keep track of all our orders, for example. It’s a learning process, but we are doing it and making a difference in our community.”
Since the beginning of the pandemic, Emilia says that SMSD has been very important in her life. “It gave me a purpose because it’s so easy to lose yourself during quarantine (like Jade mentions) if you can’t do what you are passionate about, especially if it’s something outside,” [Emilia plays field hockey], “or with other people, but we found a great way to connect–with our community and to help people in a really meaningful way. I have learned a lot through this and am glad for the opportunity
“For me,” Tia adds, “it was also about how to bring an idea to life. How to pull in your community and friends. How supportive they can be of you. I’m so proud of our team and all volunteers. We saw what was happening and we wanted to make a positive impact on our community.”
Thinking Back and Looking Forward
All the SMSD team have big plans for the future after the pandemic, but are too busy to be specific just yet. “We need to get through this first,” Jade explains. “We have discussed ways to expand our social impact in the future but for now, focusing on getting these masks to people in the medical field and also supporting refugee women continue to remain our top priorities, especially since the future is so uncertain.”
To purchase a Hockamask or make a donation, visit to Sew Masks Save Doctors. Be sure to follow them on social media and spread the word!