Rice News editor turns hobby into helping.

Arie Wilson Passwaters has been sewing since she was 4 years old, and her skills have come in handy during the COVID-19 pandemic. Spending late nights after work and on weekends, she recently sewed 500 cotton masks and gave them away to people in need, especially to front line health care workers.

“We wanted any person who needed one to have access to a free mask, so we are giving them away,” said Wilson Passwaters, who is an editor of Rice News in the Office of Public Affairs.

At first, Wilson Passwaters’ family was covering the cost of the materials, but people receiving the masks were so grateful that they started donating money. “So now we are paying it forward and donating any extra money that comes in to various organizations supporting folks in need as a result of the pandemic.”

The idea to make masks came to Wilson Passwaters when a friend who is a doctor at a Houston hospital couldn’t find masks in the early stages of the pandemic. Then Wilson Passwaters’ sister, a labor and delivery nurse, had to reuse disposable masks. Knowing of Wilson Passwaters’ sewing skills, they asked if she could make masks so they could conserve the few available in the hospitals.

“She invested a great deal of time, effort and money into making these masks for people, ultimately, just as a kindness. The world needs more people like her all the time, but especially during times like these,” said Wilson Passwaters’ friend Brian Loe.

Initially, she made some for her friends, family and co-workers. Then her husband, Mark Passwaters, posted the mask on social media and an avalanche of requests came in.

Enlisting the help of her 6-year-old daughter, Wilson Passwaters went to work. While her daughter sat next to her sorting out the materials, Wilson Passwaters sewed, sewed and sewed, sometimes until midnight. With little respite, she continued stitching the face covers on the weekends.

“When I really pushed myself, I could make around 20 on a weeknight and about 100 over the weekends,” she said. “After the first 100, I actually locked up the motor of my old machine and had to drive to Humble to buy the last heavy-duty sewing machine in Houston.”

At first, Wilson Passwaters made the masks based on patterns from the internet. When the elastic ran out in fabric shops, a Public Affairs co-worker, Kyndall Krist, gave her enough elastic to make 30 more. When there was no elastic available, Wilson Passwaters created her own pattern by using hair ties.

“The masks are great,” said Dr. Brian Loe, the friend who inspired the project. “They fit extremely well and stay in place better than any others that I have seen. I get lots of comments here at the hospital of people who are jealous of my masks.”

As the masks were being created, the mother-daughter team then expanded to include her husband, who helped mail the masks to people requesting them.

Her great-grandmother, NeNe, also contributed indirectly to making the masks: She taught Wilson Passwaters the fine art of stitching.“NeNe was a natural storyteller and spent hours teaching me how to sew when I was 4, and then when I was older how to machine sew,” she said. “NeNe survived the Spanish Flu pandemic 100 years ago and it’s surreal that it was her who gave me the skills to pitch in now.”

In spite of her achy back and fingers and strained eyes, the family affair of doing good for the community has been a rewarding experience for Wilson Passwaters.

“Mark and I feel so fortunate to be able to work from home during the crisis,” Wilson Passwaters said. “We want to do what we can to help the unsung heroes keeping the country running, such as delivery drivers, mailmen and people who are doing curbside pickups at Target and grocery stores.”

“Tiny Acts of Kindness,” a project from Rice’s Office of Public Affairs, features stories about Rice Owls responding to the COVID-19 pandemic in kind, creative and effective ways. Read the Rice Magazine series here.