Editor’s note: This is one in a periodic series called Stepping Up, highlighting moments of compassion, duty and community in uncertain times. Have a story we should tell? Send it via email to newstips@seattletimes.com with the subject “Stepping Up.”

When Ming-Ming Tung-Edelman sees a problem in the world, she is willing to take a bold step to help.

That’s why she started the Refugee Artisan Initiative in 2016, with a stated mission “to transform the lives of refugee and immigrant women by providing sustainable work in sewing and handcrafting products.”

The initiative, which employs seven refugee women from Vietnam, Ethiopia, China, Myanmar and Morocco, was producing fabric jewelry and home goods — until the coronavirus crisis.

“I was bombarded with messages and notes from friends and acquaintances” about the mask shortage and the 100 Million Mask Challenge launched by Providence, said Tung-Edelman, who is a clinical pharmacist and is married to an intensive-care unit doctor. “It just hit to the core … and at the same time, we had just finished sewing projects and it was kind of a down time for our artisans and we had a lot of fabric.”

Sandar Oo, a refugee from Myanmar, makes a mask as part of the Refugee Artisan Initiative’s effort to make personal protective equipment. (Michael Lien)
Sandar Oo, a refugee from Myanmar, makes a mask as part of the Refugee Artisan Initiative’s effort to make personal protective equipment. (Michael Lien)

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Tung-Edelman had the people and the material and there was a need to make personal protective equipment, so she started a GoFundMe page because, “I didn’t want to wait for a grant.”

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“The response was immediate and within four or five days, we made 1,200 masks that went to three health-care systems,” said Tung-Edelman, who was born in Taiwan and now lives in Seattle.

Local radio disc jockey Don O’Neil helped promote Tung-Edelman’s GoFundMe page (which had eclipsed the $20,000 goal by Friday afternoon) and personally delivered the hand-sewn masks to hospitals in Monroe and Bellingham.

The women are working separately in their own homes to maintain safety, and some of the focus has changed. Instead of just making masks, Tung-Edelman said the group is working on making face shields for home-health workers. Tung-Edelman also uses a maker space donated by the Children’s Home Society of Washington.

The initial plan was to make 1,000 face shields, but that goal has increased to 10,000, thanks to Washington state now paying for finished shields. Tung-Edelman believes most will go to home-health workers, “because that would seem to be the demographic that really needs it, but if a hospital calls we will be happy to supply because we don’t discriminate.”

“We want to be part of the solution,” Tung-Edelman added. “We are hoping with GoFundMe along with payment from the state, we will be able to provide 10,000 face shields to meet the needs while putting all our artisans and some of their family to work. We already have material for 1,000 coming this week, so we’ll be ready to start handing them out hopefully by the end of next week.”

In her dream scenario, Tung-Edelman would be able to provide a face shield for each of the 60,000 home-health workers in the state.

A table of supplies that are used to make personal protective equipment. (Ming-Ming Tung-Edelman)
A table of supplies that are used to make personal protective equipment. (Ming-Ming Tung-Edelman)

“These workers are either independent contractors and go to someone’s home or they are employed by a union, and currently they don’t provide them with any PPE (personal protective equipment),” she said. “They have recommendations on using face masks that (you do yourself) or a bandanna, but there are definitely no face shields for them and they don’t have access to basic equipment that they need and this is a population that I feel can be the most vulnerable for spreading the disease.”

The work toward the initial goal of 10,000 will begin in earnest soon.

“We just want to go for it, and put our heart out,” Tung-Edelman said.

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