Elina Choi ’22 Manufactures and Distributes Over 4,500 Face Masks to Homeless Shelters

Colorful face masks are hand-folded and sealed into silver plastic pouches. Then, the trademark stickera blue butterfly against a yellow background framed with the words “Mariposa Masks”is stuck onto the package. Placed in cardboard boxes, these masks are shipped to numerous shelters, orphanages, and nonprofits mainly in the New England area. 

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Elina Choi ’22 founded Mariposa Masks, a nonprofit organization with the goal of manufacturing and distributing high-quality, reusable masks to the most vulnerable and immunocompromised communities.

“Back in March, I was FaceTiming some friends. During one of these calls, we were talking about the Instagram hashtag, #stayhome, and how that was trending. Then, someone just brought up, what if you don’t have a place to stay? That really got us thinking what it might be like for a homeless person to be living in these times. That’s where the idea started, we thought about ways we could help. COVID-19 is a hard time to be living in general, and it can be even harder for some of our most vulnerable populations,” said Choi.

Mariposa Masks, which Choi runs alongside five other team members, has distributed over 4,500 masks to 79 shelters. In late August, the team surpassed its goal of raising $15,000 on GoFundMe. While searching for places to donate to, Choi was surprised by the high number of locations looking for mask donations.

“A lot of people don’t know how many homeless shelters and orphanages there are in any area. We started looking at shelters around where we lived, or around the schools we went to. There are so many shelters in Massachusetts, and whenever we would call these shelters and ask if they’d be accepting donations, all of them said yes…That definitely shows that there’s so many people out there who are in need,” said Choi.

In starting Mariposa Masks, Choi understood the importance of masks, drawing from her experience living through the early wave of Covid-19 in her hometown of Seoul, South Korea. According to Choi, since South Korea had been hit much earlier than the US, finding and producing cotton masks would be easier there than the United States, which was suffering a personal protective equipment shortage in early spring.

To make the masks, Choi starts by selecting color schemes, searching for the cloth both online and in clothing markets. At first, Choi and her team members sewed the masks themselves, but they soon realized they needed additional help to speed up the process.

Choi said, “I called manufacturers and asked if they could make some with us. A lot of them said no, which is understandable. In total, I called 60 people. Later on, we ended up finding this one lady who normally works with traditional Korean garments, but she was also making masks. We called her and talked about what we do and how it’s all for a good cause. She agreed and became our first manufacturer. Now we have several. We would talk and I would tell her the sizes and fabrics to use and she would make them.”

Ablah Siddiq ’22, a friend of Choi’s, is proud of Choi for her efforts to create meaningful change. Siddiq emphasized the nonprofit’s work in focusing on the Black Lives Matter movement as well as the state of Florida, a recent COVID-19 epicenter.

“I’m really proud of [Choi] because I know that [Mariposa Masks is] doing a lot of good work. Recently, they’ve been [helping] Florida, which is in a crisis, and also [helping] to [raise] awareness for Black Lives Matter by creating these Black Lives Matter masks and donating the money to Black-owned nonprofits. I’m excited. I can see how much [of an] impact it’s having,” said Siddiq. 

With each Mariposa Masks donation, a letter is also included detailing where the masks are from and all of the member’s contact information, along with some signature Mariposa blue butterfly stickers. Scattered across their Instagram page (@mariposa.masks) are pictures of children and adults wearing Mariposa masks, as well as various thank-you emails from shelters and other organizations praising the nonprofit for their high-quality, stylish masks.

“We get a lot of response emails. Every single one of them really does give us a perspective on the work we do and how important it is that we continue. I remember one of the emails talked about before Mariposa Masks, a lot of the kids didn’t really want to wear masks because they didn’t really fit well and irritated their skin. Now they say that the kids actually want to wear masks and they’re so thankful… Because we get so many emails talking about how high quality our masks are, that really encourages us to keep that standard and to keep working,” said Choi.