College student helps out ‘One Mask at a Time’

Nonprofit organization provides masks to homeless, underserved communities

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At their first distribution event on Sept. 30, One Mask at a Time donated 200 masks to Stockton Rescue Center. Pictured are President Shaista Afzal (left) and outreach coordinator Ana Perez (right). COURTESY PHOTO

College student and Ripon resident Shaista Afzal is on a mission to make San Joaquin County a safer place, one mask at a time.

This summer, the second-year UC Merced student founded One Mask at a Time, a nonprofit organization dedicated to donating masks to homeless shelters and underserved communities during the COVID-19 pandemic.

She and the organization’s vice president, Gurneet Somal, a second-year Saint Mary’s College student, decided to start learning how to sew.

“Over the summer, we had more free time on our hands and we wanted to start doing projects,” Afzal said. “With the extra fabric, we really wanted to make masks because there were disparities in the community, especially in the valley.”

According to San Joaquin Continuum of Care’s 2019 homeless census survey, there are more than 1,500 unsheltered residents in San Joaquin County.

“Growing up in the valley, I saw many homeless people around Stockton and Modesto,” Somal said. “I always felt as if I could do more to help, but didn’t know exactly how to do so.”

Somal said this was her chance to act.

Afzal and Somal faced challenges when starting their organization.

“Since we were beginning sewers, we couldn’t really make masks, but we knew we still wanted to donate them,” Afzal said.

The next best idea was to donate disposable masks and donations received from the public, she added.

In August, the idea began to take shape.

Afzal started the process of establishing One Mask at a Time through the California Association of Nonprofits.

“Once it got established, we started finding board members, people in the community we knew were passionate about being involved and would be willing to give their time,” Afzal said.

Alexia Wasson, a second-year student at UC Merced, was among the people Afzal reached out to.

“When Shaista asked me to be a part of One Mask at a Time, I did not hesitate and immediately said yes because I knew this was something great,” Wasson said. “I believed we would be able to bring some joy in the midst of this pandemic.”

While finding board members was easy, Afzal and Somal experienced other difficulties.

“There were times in the beginning when we weren’t getting any mask donations and I wanted to give up, but Shaista pushed us to keep doing what we’re doing,” Somal said.

Afzal attributed her “never give up” spirit to Laura Ochoa, her former English teacher and multicultural club adviser at Ripon High School.

“She was super involved in community outreach,” Afzal said.

Afzal said Ochoa made it possible for her and the club to travel to Los Angeles to participate in We Day, a large youth empowerment event that celebrates the impact students have made on local and global issues.

“We were one of the smaller schools who participated, but we were able to donate over 2,000 cans to the food bank,” Afzal said. “Ms. Ochoa always knew that even though we were small in numbers, we could make an impact.”

A popular figure who has recognized Afzal’s impact on the community is Kevin Lincoln, Stockton Mayor-Elect.

Lincoln recently took to Facebook to shout-out One Mask at a Time and encourage his followers to support the nonprofit.

“When we saw his post, we were so excited that he recognized our efforts,” Afzal said.

She added that Lincoln’s post came on the day of One Mask at a Time’s first visit to a homeless shelter.

“It made us feel like what we were doing was already getting noticed,” Afzal said. “We thought if we continued, we could get more recognition and more donations. That was definitely a boost and a happy moment for our organization.”

Afzal said One Mask at a Time’s current goal is to distribute over 1,000 masks they already have packaged to local homeless shelters.

In addition, Afzal is looking for the organization to grow beyond the Central Valley.

“We hope to extend to the Bay Area and the Los Angeles area,” Afzal said. “We’re hoping as we receive more donations, we’ll be able to serve other areas of California.”

Those who are interested in donating face masks can find more information at onemaskatatime.square.site.