Key Biscayne’s Yellow Masks protect livelihoods as well as lives


Strengthening All Concerned

Whether you’re a Homestead migrant worker or a Miami seamstress, you’re now better equipped to survive COVID-19 and keep your job, thanks to the quick action of three leaders of the Key Biscayne Rotary Club in Florida, USA.  The Club’s compassion and agile response are helping to make the entire community more resilient through a smart strategy of recycling and partnership.

The three leaders of Key Biscayne Rotary’s Yellow Mask project (from left):  PP. Patricia Peraita, President Ines Lozano, and PP Patricia Romano.

 Oh, and by the way:  Rotary’s core message of Service Above Self is shining across Miami Dade County in action as well as words, and new contributions are flowing into Rotary’s Polio Plus at a time when they are desperately needed to sustain other vital disease prevention programs worldwide.

 How?  the Yellow Mask project, which the Key Biscayne Club invites you to support. 

Each $20 contribution provides three washable, lined, cotton masks, one for the donor, and two for people on the front lines of risk in Florida.  Made of bright Rotary-yellow cotton, the masks are imprinted with the Rotary wheel and “Service Above Self.”

 Key Biscayne Rotary asked the environmental non-profit A Zero Waste Culture (AZWC)  to produce the masks.

The Club’s order is helping AZWC, based in Miami’s Little Haiti, to keep nine local seamstresses employed.  

$15 from each $20 covers AZWC’s price to make three masks. Of the remaining $5, the Club sends $3 to Rotary International for Polio Plus, where it will be matched by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The other $2 goes into the Foundation of the Key Biscayne Rotary Club to be used for other community needs.

 “We call this ‘20 beats 19:’  $20 beats Covid-19,” says Past President Patricia Romano. AZWC has the capacity to make up to 1,500 masks a week, so put your order in by emailing Romano .  Rotary Clubs can order in bulk, receiving 1/3 of the Rotary logo masks in yellow, and 2/3 in different colors to hand out in their own community.  Your club can place its own logo on the masks for a one-time fee. Key Biscayne also offers yellow Service Above Self t-shirts for $20.

How was this project born? Romano was going nuts in quarantine as COVID swept across Miami Dade County.  “I have to be doing SOMETHING,” she exclaimed. As Florida reeled under one of the most serious outbreaks in the United States, the virus slammed Miami’s low-income communities and the migrant workers who live and work in crowded conditions.

 As the crisis expanded, AZWC launched two new products to meet it:  masks made of 100% recycled cotton, and hand-sanitizer made from locally-sourced alcohol and aloe vera from donated plants. True to its zero-waste mission, AZWC sent out a call to the community for second-hand fabric.

 Romano pulled out her sewing machine and tried to remember the skills nuns had taught her years before in school, but the machine didn’t work, so she mobilized her network to start collecting tablecloths and other fabric that the workers at A Zero Waste Culture could turn into masks.  Romano found a source for elastic, recruited friends to help her cut out the pattern pieces, and contacted her Rotary Club.

 Current President Ines Lozano welcomed the proposal, delighted that the Yellow Mask idea combines disease prevention, jobs, and recycling. She pitched the project to the Club, and they embraced it, donating $800 in start-up funding for the Yellow Masks as a win-win social enterprise.  “It fits that the theme of Rotary this year is ‘Rotary Opens Opportunities,’” she points out.

 “When you get lemons, make lemonade,” adds Patricia Romano.  “The pandemic is a BIG LEMON!”

 She and fellow Past President Patricia Peraita were able to allocate a grant from a fund they manage to AZWC to make 500 masks for a woman’s prison suffering a severe COVID outbreak. “Now we’re collecting fun prints for children – we’ve found some colorful ones with fish – to make them masks before they return to school,” Romano says.

 How did the community respond?   Mask-wearing has become a polarizing issue in the United States, with major battles erupting across the country over mask mandates.  Over Labor Day weekend (Sept. 4-7), Miami Beach officials wrote 800 tickets to people for failing to wear masks. But the Rotary Yellow Masks – and the cheerful women behind them – are turning many frowns to smiles.  

 Islander News editor Justo Rey ran a front-page story titled “Yellow Mask Project Takes Over the Island.” “Leave it to the creative and dedicated members of the Key Biscayne Rotary Club,” Rey wrote, “to come up with something that is fun, useful, and helps prevent the spread of the coronavirus!  Everybody is doing the yellow!” He added a photo montage of many Key Biscayne notables in their masks, all of them clearly beaming.

  Rotary’s dedication to truth and humanitarian service are bedrock values for all three women. Of all the major coastal cities in the world, Miami faces one of the highest risks of catastrophic financial loss due to rising sea levels. Environmental activism is a longtime family cause for Ines Lozano. Her husband is a journalist who has written extensively about climate change and renewable energy, and her son is an environmentalist with the NGO Parley for the Ocean. He wrote his university thesis on forced migrations caused by sea level rise.

 PP Patricia Peraita sees the Yellow Mask project as a powerful way to raise community awareness, both of public health and of the impact and integrity of Rotary. “Through this project we’re also raising money for Polio Plus,” she says. “Young people in the United States are not all that aware of polio, but now, with the coronavirus, they now realize that other viruses can kill,” and see how donating to Rotary is a way to help prevent that. “Rotary is transparent,” she explains. “The money goes where it’s supposed to.