Gold Canyon resident Kitty Daniels was perusing Facebook one day a few months ago when she saw a post about smile masks.
The masks, which feature a transparent plastic panel, help overcome the limitations regular masks pose for non-verbal communication. That’s a great idea, Ms. Daniels thought to herself, so she shot off an email to Rosie Portugal-Brastad, coordinator at Project HELP, a community-based program committed to providing short-term assistance for families and students enrolled in the Apache Junction Unified School District.
Ms. Portugal-Brastad already had gotten her army of volunteers, which includes her son Bjorn Brastad, working on making regular COVID-19 masks for employees at the district’s schools as well as Banner-Goldfield Medical Center in Apache Junction.
But in the smile masks she saw an opportunity to help teachers and students at AJUSD’s three elementary schools — Four Peaks, Peralta Trail and Desert Vista — and special needs children at The Learning Center.
Ms. Portugal-Brastad emailed Ms. Daniels back, said she was on board and soon Ms. Daniels and some friends at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in Gold Canyon got to work making the masks. The initial batch of 110 masks distributed to the schools were a huge hit and more masks are on the way.
“We didn’t realize what an important role they were going to play,” Ms. Portugal-Brastad said.
Natalie Mannion-Jones, speech language pathologist for AJUSD, said the smile masks have made a huge difference in her training.
“In speech therapy, a lot of kids have to be able to see my mouth to be able to make specific sounds,” Ms. Mannion-Jones said. “When I wear a regular mask the kids can’t see. Being able to show them with that clear part of the mask really helps. Therapy is way more productive that way.”
Ms. Mannion-Jones said the mask provides another service — keeping her and her students safe when she has to make specific sounds, like the “kuh,” sound for the letter K.
“The ‘kuh’ sound is made in the back of the throat and you’re expelling a lot of air and force,” Ms. Mannion-Jones said. “It’s a messy sound. A lot of spittle comes out. The mask reduces the transmission in the air.”
Celysia Redondo, in charge of the health office and manager of child care at The Early Learning Center, said the smile masks have, well, put a smile on the face of Letron Alexander, who is in charge of the Mountain Heights program, which focuses on one-on-one teaching.
“He was initially wearing a regular mask but now that he wears a smile mask the kids love it,” Ms. Redondo said. “They go off his expression where before they couldn’t really tell. I feel like they connect with him better now.”
M. Redondo said she has worn the smile mask at The Early Learning Center’s child care and the kids, ages 6 weeks to 5 months, are drawn to her more because they can see her expression.
“I feel like I’ve went into the light from the darkness,” she said.
Editor’s note: Scott Bordow is the Apache Junction Unified School District’s director of communications and community engagement.