Spurred by a desire to help their Brown School community during the COVID-19 pandemic, Chinese students, faculty and staff community have collected nearly 1,500 masks for free distribution to those who need them. The single-use masks are available through pickup or delivery to any members of the Brown School community.
As the coronavirus spread slows in China, where mask production is at full tilt, families there have sent masks to relatives in the Brown School community, said Linyun Fu, manager of global programs for the Brown School, who helped organize the initiative. She realized many had a surplus because of this, and masks were hard to find in St. Louis. Fu, along with Assistant Professor Ruopeng An and Zizi Xu, a second-year MSW student, began soliciting donations of masks from the Brown School Chinese community and distributing them to those who requested them. Additional masks were also ordered directly from China.
“This is a difficult time for all of us,” said Fu. “We know need to all work together for everyone’s benefit.”
An puts masks in a large cardboard box outside his home for pickup, while Fu, Xu and two other Brown students, Grace Cao, MSW/MPH, and Danyi Li, MSP/MPH, deliver masks. Because the masks are single-use, they are given away in quantities of 5-10, with more available for people with special needs. As of May 1, masks have been given to 131 people who requested them.
Fu noted that as the outbreak unfolded and mask-wearing was not common, some Chinese students faced discrimination and taunts when they shopped for food, making them fearful of going to grocery stores wearing masks. The Brown School created a grocery-shopping program in which volunteers shopped for students. “Chinese students feel grateful,” she said, “and they wanted to do something for our larger community.”
Xu said she was moved to act when she saw the crisis in China but was unable to return. “I felt a bit powerless because I could not go back home and help. I feel obligated to do my best to serve our communities here because I feel heartbroken to see more people and families are suffering,” she said. “There are many uncertainties and impossibilities out of my control, but there always things that we can do to make small changes as individuals and benefit our larger communities.”
Cao, the co-chair of the International Student Association at the Brown School, said she received a great number of masks from her family in China, and her mother suggested she share them with classmates. She heard about the mask-donation program and decided to volunteer.
“If there was only one thing I have learned from this pandemic, it would be that hatred, division, and blaming towards each other would never save people’s lives,” Cao said. “Instead, they put underprivileged people under risk. To make it through this hard time, we need to hold each other accountable, diminish our distance while social distancing, and help each other as much as possible when needed.”
“Brown School is my community. Professors, teachers, and my peers helped me a lot and they play an important role as my social support system,” said Li. “I also want to be supportive as a member of the Brown School family. Stay together, stay strong.”