DRAPERS, Portland — People in this district on Jamaica’s north-eastern coast fondly refer to Carol Whyte as Aunty Tiny. The nickname, Whyte explained, was given to her shortly after she was born “because I was small”.
However, Whyte has been making a very big gesture in her parish since Jamaica reported its first case of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) in March. She has been manufacturing face masks and basically giving them away to individuals and organisations.
According to Whyte, she started making face masks for herself and her family after it became clear that the protective device was essential to stem the spread of COVID-19.
“I said to myself, ‘You can sew, so why not make it for yourself?’ ” Whyte told the Jamaica Observer in a recent interview. “I had some material and I started to make for myself and I gave some away. Then people started to come and ask.”
She said that when she started sewing face masks they were being sold elsewhere in the parish for $300 each, but she was asking for a mere $100 to cover her costs.
“People said, ‘Your mask is very nice and you can charge much more, as in Port Antonio and Kingston they are charging much more,’ but I only cover the basic cost,” Whyte explained.
“It is a means of helping and sharing — giving back. I think I was culturally trying to tell everybody why I was doing it; the reason is to see that people wear masks. Since I was volunteering my time and the electricity, all I needed reimbursement for was the fabric… the rest of it, I couldn’t care less” she said with a smile.
Whyte, a breast cancer survivor, is a Red Cross volunteer. She spoke to the Sunday Observer just after returning home from the charity organisation’s office in Port Antonio, where they presented care packages to needy people.
Asked why she decided to make face masks and give them away, Whyte said: “When I heard about the first case [of COVID-19] in Portland I wanted to do more. I don’t think everybody was taking it seriously enough, and I said if I did my part, started making masks and handing them out, then eventually we’ll be protected.”
She said that when she first went on the streets offering the masks, most people accepted them. However, she remembered one young man who refused.
“I said, ‘Okay, he did not take it,’ [but] a couple of days later him come back and said: ‘Mi want a mask now.’ I said, ‘Okay, here it is.’ ”
“If more people get them, more people will be covered, and we won’t have these flare-ups [of the virus],” she said.
So far Whyte said she has given away more than 200 masks, and last week she presented another batch to the Red Cross, which was accepted by the charity’s Portland branch emergency chairperson Eileen Davis.
“We are very grateful for the masks, as when we get them we distribute them to persons who we see without,” Davis told the Sunday Observer. “The masks are very good, and persons have responded very well to them. At a time like this we have to be wearing our mask, and when we give the seniors these masks they are very appreciative of it. We tell persons that it is very important to wear a mask so as to minimise the spreading of the COVID-19 virus.”
Shortly after receiving the masks from Whyte, the Red Cross team went into the Drapers community to hand out care packages containing hand sanitiser, bleach, hydrogen peroxide, soap, tissue, and food, as well as masks.
One elderly man, Aline Pinnock, who received one of the packages, was grateful. “I am thankful for the Red Cross and their assistance, as I got a stroke and have not been able to move around freely. They are doing a good job,” he said.
Delceta Pollock, who received a mask and care package, said: “This is very good. I am thankful for the mask and this package. This virus that is going around, I think the mask will help me not to get it, and I am happy for it. God bless dem.”
Whyte told the Sunday Observer that in addition to the Red Cross she has given face masks to Food For the Poor, as that charity requires individuals to wear a mask before entry to its office is permitted.
“I’ve seen persons swapping masks so that they can go in and that should not be,” said Whyte. “I’ve given them masks so that persons can go in. Everybody along this lane have a mask and extra mask because I’ve given to them and they give it to somebody else. We are passing it forward in many different ways, and Jamaica really needs help; we cannot afford to make COVID-19 destroy the country.”
Whyte, though, lamented that there are still too many people who are not adhering to the safety protocols, especially social distancing.
That aside, she is happy with her contribution to Portland’s COVID-19 response. Her only challenge now, though, is a shortage of elastic and fabric, especially the camouflage pattern that is extremely popular but expensive.
“Portland doesn’t have a lot of choices, and the camouflage goes for $2,000 a yard… but I am not going to drive to Kingston at this time to get no fabric,” Whyte insisted.
But even as she awaits an ease in the shortage of material, Whyte has to be dealing with demands for her masks from relatives overseas who apparently saw the designs on Instagram, courtesy of her niece, nephew and neighbour.
“My neighbour put it on her Instagram and say I have to make some to send to my relatives in the United States. I told her no, as I’m not going to take on that to send them. ‘If I make them, you going to send them,’ I told her. My relatives are asking me to do the same thing. I told them ‘since fabric and elastic are hard to find here, you send them and I will make some for our family here’,” Whyte related with a smile.
She heaped praises on the assistance she receives from her friend Loraine Panton, also known as Sharon,
“I am grateful for Sharon’s help. When I had to move to a production mode, she came in and did the cutting eight hours a day. She would run down to town (Port Antonio), get some fabric and elastic while I sew. So we have been working together,” Whyte said.
Panton explained her involvement in the mask production. “I always pass on my way from work and see her making the masks and giving them away, so I decided to stop and offer her some help because she was doing a good thing. She was always saying she can manage, but the work started to pile up on her. She asked me to cut, so I started cutting the material in the shapes she designed. I will go to Port Antonio and buy the material she needs and get back to cut them so the sewing can continue,” she told the Sunday Observer.
To Red Cross volunteer Geneva Pinnock, Whyte is a “gift from God”.
“Those persons who volunteer for Red Cross give of their time and money without any pay; it is a calling from God. She is one who loves to work with the less fortunate and I stick by her and try to let everybody have a mask. I love to work with her, she is a woman of God’s own heart. When you look around persons are wearing their mask. I have given away over 30 of her masks so far, and this will help to reduce the spreading of the virus,” Pinnock said.
Despite not making a profit from the venture, Whyte is adamant that she will continue.
“I am not losing any money off of it. I’m good. I break even and that works for me. If everybody in Portland can get a mask, I’m good,” she said with a broad smile.
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