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Senior Spotlight: Jana Yan

June 7, 2021

Jana Yan has gotten used to the soreness in her shoulders and hands.

Over the past year, she has spent up to 11 hours a day hovered over a sewing machine, stitching together mask after mask for people she didn’t know and organizations she saw on her computer screen.

Those organizations needed the masks because of the global pandemic, caused by COVID-19, and they found Jana through Facebook, her website or simply through the cyber grapevine on social media.

Now, even with the mask mandate lifted nationwide, Jana is far from slowing down. She knows nurses and doctors think the lifting of the mask mandate is premature. So, she’ll keep on making masks and branch off into making other things like scrub caps.

She’ll donate everything she makes as she gets ready to start the next chapter of her life.

She’ll graduate today from Northwest High and head to Vanderbilt University, where she’ll double major in medicine, health and society and human organizational development.

Jana plans to go to medical school. But she can’t help but look back at the past year and think about how Guilford Mask Project reached schools, organizations and people as far away as Greece, Africa and a tiny island in the Pacific Ocean.

It all started with a question. And she said yes.

 

The Impact of One Request

Jana YanThe question came one day in mid-March 2020 as North Carolina and everywhere else began to lock down because of the pandemic.

Jana’s dad, Kelvin Yan, works as an electrical engineer at Qorvo, and he was talking one of his co-workers whose wife works as an emergency room nurse at Duke Medical Center.

He told Jana’s dad about his wife’s worry about the lack of personal protective equipment, known by everyone as “PPE,” to protect themselves against COVID-19.

Jana’s dad then told his co-worker about Jana’s Etsy monogram business, Personalized Monograms and More. Jana had started her Etsy business nearly two years before and turned a small room in their home into her office filled with rolls of fabric.

The co-worker had a question. That one question changed Jana’s life.

“He asked my dad, ‘Is there any way your daughter can make some masks and give my wife a few?’” Jana says. “At that time, stores were running out of all the materials and all the elastic needed to make masks, but I already had all that fabric at my house.

“I was one of those people who would buy things they liked and bought a lot of it, and if no one liked it, I would still buy it. So, I was prepared during the pandemic.”

She gave the nurses 20 masks. That was her first 20 — the first of 15,000 masks she has made.

“I saw a need in the community, and honestly, everyone I was talking to was trying to make the mask themselves, and they didn’t have the material,” she says. “And all these other people were buying out the material, and I had all this material at my house, and I knew I could make a few.

“But it turned into a lot more than I expected, and I never expected to do this project as long as I did,” she says. “I thought it would last, maybe, three months.”

Not quite.

 

‘Made With Love’

Jana YanThe headquarters of the Guilford Mask Project is really one room in Jana’s house.

“It’s a small, tight room,” she says. “There are three desks for each sewing machine, and all the cloth takes up the other half of the room. There’s also the ironing board and the steamer. So, it can be overwhelming if you stay in there too long. It’s, like, really crowded.”

Jana did have help, though. Like her dad.

He would wash and iron all the cloth and make them as sanitary as possible. Then, Jana would put them together.

Jana knows her way around a needle and thread. Her paternal grandfather, a tailor from Singapore, gave her a sewing machine when she was 7, and he taught her how to sew. She later bought an embroidering machine and started her own Etsy business.

With creating monograms, all Jana had to do was set it up and push a button on the embroidery machine. But with making masks, she had to work with one of her two sewing machines. She’d cut the cloth, run it through the machine, stitch it, attach the elastic and be done.

In just under four minutes.

When she got really busy with orders, Jana could make 270 masks in a day.

When it came to delivering her orders, Jana’s dad drove her to the post office because she didn’t have a driver’s license. She then would ship anywhere from 50 to 1,000 masks and include in her package a note that opened with: “Made with Love.”

The note continued: “It is our hope that these masks will aid in the safety and health of (name of organization) during the outbreak of COVID-19.”

With the help of social media and Jana’s contacts, orders started pouring in. Jana soon needed more help than just her dad. More help came.

 

Thank You Jana!

Jana YanJana began receiving free fabric from fabric.com, and after getting her driver’s license last fall, she drove herself to the post office to ship her orders. At first, her parents paid for the shipping of her first 5,000 masks she made. After that, Jana covered all her shipping from donations.

Meanwhile, she found 16 volunteers to help her with everything from washing and ironing the fabric to cutting the fabric and the elastic. They shipped Jana the materials so she could make the masks, or they made the masks themselves. Then, the orders went out the door.

The volunteers came from Michigan, Florida, Virginia, North Carolina and Washington, D.C. Her volunteers ranged in age from 17 to 75, and they all came together because they loved sewing, and like Jana, they saw a need.

“Not many people sew these days,” Jana says. “It’s a lost art, and it was difficult to find people. But the people who found me were mostly older people who had free time, and they’d see stuff on Facebook and reach out.

“And they’re a lot faster than me in sewing. They can do 400 masks a day.”

The mask requests coming into Jana’s website, guilfordmaskproject.org, arrived from everywhere –– as close as Northwest High to as far away Greece, Uganda, Gambia, Hawaii and Micronesia.

There was a refugee camp in Greece and a youth-led non-profit in Uganda as well as schools in Gambia, Hawaii and on an island near Papua New Guinea.

Jana never put her name on the packages she sent. But some recipients found out who she was.

The recipients sent her notes. A principal in Hawaii sent her a surfboard. The school in Micronesia sent her a video, and it’s located on Weno Island, which occupies 12 square miles in the Pacific Ocean and sits nearly 8,000 miles from Northwest High.

The school’s video is nearly seven minutes long. It’s all images, words and music with the message coming in at 1:37 into the video that states loud and clear how the students at Akoyikoyi School feel: “Thank You Jana!”

The video also shows students holding handwritten notes to Jana, written in crayon, in English, with drawn hearts around sentences like, “we can use them to be saved (from) coronavirus. Your (sic) the best.”

“Honestly, I didn’t expect it,” Jana says. “But it’s a reward for all the hard work and love you put into making the masks. You see those videos, and it’s a driver that keeps you going.”

 

Lessons Learned

Jana YanIt was two years ago when Jana helped create her first nonprofit with her brother, Matthew, when he was at Northwest High. He’s now a student at UNC-Chapel Hill, and together, they co-founded Link 2 College Prep.

It was a tutoring service where she and her brother teamed up with 16 tutors from Northwest High and helped students from low-income neighborhoods. They all met at Kathleen Clay Edwards Library near Jefferson Elementary.

Link 2 College Prep was all local. Guilford Mask Project, Jana’s second nonprofit, is all about the world. Ask Jana what she’s learned, and she has an answer ready.

“I can do a lot more than I thought I could do,” she says. “When I reached 1,000 masks last April, I thought I couldn’t do it anymore. I was kind of burned out. But I kept doing it, and you know what, it turned out to be something good.”

Making a difference at home and across the world

December 2, 2020

Northwest Guilford High School student helping in the fight against COVID-19

December 1, 2020

The Guilford Mask Project has made 9,500 donations worldwide. It's also run by a teenager.

November 26, 2020

GREENSBORO — People who encounter Jana Yan through her charity efforts are sometimes surprised to discover there’s a teenager running the operation.

But the Northwest Guilford High School senior said those who know her well are less shocked to hear she is making and sending thousands of masks to people across the world to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“If I want to do something, I’m pretty keen on doing it,” she said. 

Yan, whose grandparents are tailors, has been sewing most her life and got her first sewing machine at about age eight or nine. 

In 2018, Yan launched her first Etsy store, selling custom-stitched monogrammed items. 

The market to sell such goods is extremely competitive, Yan said, and most Etsy stores get overlooked. So she decided to research and learn about how to market her business.

Yan said that with some better strategies and photos, she was able to get her products featured a few times on Etsy and by a few home-design magazines.    

With that exposure, and with high profit margins due to some inexpensive materials, Yan said she was able to make about 9,000 sales and a profit of somewhere in the range of $150,000 to $200,000 over the course of two years.

But when the pandemic hit, Yan’s attention was diverted. She has since closed that Etsy shop.  

She started another Etsy store called StitchbyJ in April, intending it would be a smaller operation serving mostly family and friends.

But that didn’t happen.

StitchByJ, which Yan said has not been profitable, offers face masks on a buy-one, donate-one basis, as well as some masks where the proceeds are designated for specific charities.

“Honestly, the pandemic really changed my views on life and what my goals should be,” Yan said.

She is now looking at studying social work in college and has put money from her past store’s profits toward something called the Guilford Mask Project.

“There are so many different problems in the world,” Yan said. “It’s more worth it to me doing that than making a monogram sweatshirt.”

Yan said her Guilford Mask Project now has about 16 or 17 volunteers. She has a couple of seamstresses in Michigan who are working with her, but the majority of volunteers are actually helping with communications.

The Guilford Mask Project has a website and multiple social media accounts, with regular posts about masks that are made and donated.

Yan said she could use more donations of fabric as well as help taking batches of masks and supplies back and forth from the post office.  

On Sunday, the group posted about sending 100 masks to Michigan social workers to help protect children in foster care.

Other recent recipients include the Oglala Sioux tribe in South Dakota and volunteers at a refugee camp in Greece.

Yan said she is finding many of her recipients through a website called GetPPE.org and also works with an initiative known as the Million Mask Challenge. 

Maybe the hardest thing she’s dealt with, Yan said, was an occasion when she donated masks to a man for what she thought was going to be a free distribution, only to discover that he was reselling them online. That’s made her warier about who she chooses to support.  

And then there are those she does support.

Hannah Klein is a teacher with the Akoyikoyi School, a tuition-free primary school located on the island of Weno in the Federated States of Micronesia. She discovered StitchbyJ while looking on Etsy for masks to purchase for the school’s students. Micronesia, a country of multiple islands spread across the Pacific Ocean,  doesn’t currently have any cases, Klein said, but school leaders hoped to get students started wearing masks ahead of any potential spread to their island.

Klein found out there wasn’t money in the budget to immediately purchase an order from StitchbyJ, but Yan contacted her to say that she would donate the masks instead. She shipped 130 reusable masks to the school, along with school supplies. 

“I literally almost cried,” Klein said. “Seeing her art and also her generosity in action is really really cool.”

Yan said she’s been spending about 15 hours a week on the project. The fact that school has been online, she explained, has made her time more flexible.

It’s tough to deal with isolation from friends and the stress of college applications, she said, and working on the masks has helped get her through it.   

“Honestly, the pandemic has been really depressing,” she said. “To be able to do something that I enjoy doing, and doing it for someone else, is always a fun experience for me.”