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OISE student makes more than 1,000 masks for people in need: 'I felt the need to act'

“I felt the need to act and help,,” says Fernanda Yanchapaxi, a doctoral student at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (photo courtesy Fernanda Yanchapaxi Travez)

When Fernanda Yanchapaxi’s grandmother in Ecuador died early in the pandemic, she was unable to travel home to grieve with her family.

A doctoral student at the University of Toronto's Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), she had difficulty reaching relatives, and wasn’t able to connect with friends in Toronto due to the lockdown.

Yanchapaxi felt the need to do something, so she started making non-medical masks – initially for friends and family, but then for others. She has now sewn more than 1,000 of them, donating them to Sistering, a local women’s multi-service agency for women, and St. Joseph’s Hospital, as well as to grocery store workers, nurses, and friends who are immunocompromised.

“I felt the need to act and help here [in Toronto],” she says.

Yanchapaxi’s six-year-old daughter assisted by folding and packing the masks and keeping a list of requests for donations.

“It helps her practise her writing and math, and she learns what it means to be a community member,” Yanchapaxi says.

She also sewed masks for two of her daughter’s friends, both pre-teens, who used their business platform, Leeloodles, to sell the masks and donate the proceeds to three Black and Indigenous organizations.

Yanchapaxi, who is researching ways to protect Indigenous knowledge for future generations, says she felt a sense of duty to take action.

 “I’m a graduate student, with a student income, but I know that I am healthy, and that I have a home and food, and that I am in a more privileged position than other people here,” she said. “I did what I was able to do using my skills and limited resources.”

As COVID-19 cases increase among Indigenous communities in Ecuador and elsewhere, Yanchapaxi says it’s crucial to keep in mind that Indigenous peoples have been enduring loss and pandemics for generations.

“This might be the first time my generation has lived through a pandemic, but it is not the first time that our [Indigenous] communities have had to protect themselves while being underfunded, underserved, or left out from governmental actions,” she said. “As an Indigenous person, I feel I have an obligation to the people who live in the same land as me.

“If there are people in need, I should do what I can do to help.”