Athens creatives use DIY skills to make face shields

Chris and Deirdre Sugiuchi with face shields they made in their Athens home. Contributed by Deirdre Sugiuchi.
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Chris and Deirdre Sugiuchi with face shields they made in their Athens home. Contributed by Deirdre Sugiuchi.

One family’s efforts grow into a grassroots community operation

Athens author Deirdre Sugiuchi figured she'd spend her time during self-quarantine sewing cloth face masks. A multi-faceted artist, she sews some of her own clothes, her writing has appeared in nationally recognized publications including Shondaland.com, and she's finishing a memoir about her teen years at Escuela Caribe, a Fundamentalist Christian reform school in the Dominican Republic.

But her mask-making plans changed five weeks ago when her husband, Chris, a musician and STEM teacher at the Chase Street elementary school in Athens, brought home his lab equipment after the school closed temporarily in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

He had read news stories about Italians using 3D printers to make diverter valves for respiratory ventilators and about individuals in the Czech Republic who worked with their ministry of health to make face shields for medical personnel. A key material was PETG plastic — the kind used for two-liter soda bottles. He happened to have a roll of PETG left over from his son Harvey’s science fair project, enough for 40 face shields. With a 3D printer borrowed from his classroom, Chris and Deirdre Sugiuchi set an idea in motion.

“I downloaded the pattern (for a face shield) to see if I could make one,” Chris said. And with that, the making of cloth face masks took a back seat. Now the Sugiuchis are making and distributing face shields for free to medical personnel and other essential workers in the Athens area who need them.

"A lot of people are doing this across the country," Deirdre says of homemade Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), an effort she associates with the DIY "maker movement." A former public-school librarian in Clarke County Title I schools and board member for Books for Keeps, which provides summer reading for children from low-income families, Deirdre is good at getting things done. For nearly seven years, she co-curated the New Town Revue Music and Literature series in Athens, hosting performances by writers and musicians.

“Problem solving and empathy work together,” says Chris, who played bass guitar and trombone with the Athens bands Ham1 and backed Georgia musician Vic Chesnutt on his 2008 European tour.

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A line of 3D printers at work in the Sugiuchi home. Contributed by Deirdre Sugiuchi

A line of 3D printers at work in the Sugiuchi home. Contributed by Deirdre Sugiuchi
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A line of 3D printers at work in the Sugiuchi home. Contributed by Deirdre Sugiuchi

Harnessing their collective creative skills, they set out to do something about the shortage of PPE among medical personnel.

Chris showed their first mask to Dr. A. Karl Barnett at Piedmont Athens Regional Medical Center.

“The basic design was spot-on,” says Barnett, who suggested minor modifications to the face shield’s width and length. Chris then reached out online, seeking volunteers with 3-D printers.

In March, the Sugiuchi family started turning out PPE face shields in their 1,600-square-foot home in Athens’ Cobbham neighborhood. Deirdre quickly envisioned expanding beyond a single printer into a factory-style assembly line. They held a fund-raising campaign that allowed them to buy more 3-D printers, basic models that cost about $250 each. With eight printers running in one room, the household electric bill doubled.

They began ordering PETG plastic from companies as far away as Texas, but “it’s been really hard to get,” Chris says. A volunteer obtained 10 sheets from a glass company in Clarke County. The straps were originally made from buttonhole elastic, but supplies have grown scarce, says Chris. Now they use eighth-inch bungee cord.

Social media was key to getting the word out. People shared the image Chris posted of the prototype shield on Facebook. Friends and neighbors who work in health care spread the word, too. After the local media provided coverage, “there was an explosion of requests,” says Deirdre.

The shields are made according to CDC guidelines, which require they cover the wearer’s forehead, extend below the chin and wrap around the sides of the face. Each shield has four parts: an elastic headband, a clip that attaches to the bottom, a strap and the clear plastic shield.

Chris sometimes assembles the shields in the living room at night while binging on “Mad Men” episodes. Harvey, an 18-year-old freshman at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, affixes the elastic straps while attending class via Zoom. Deirdre, in charge of communications, has recently declared the kitchen table off limits to production.

3-D printing differs from standard paper printing in that it uses plastic filament rather than ink. “Imagine a robot with a tiny hot glue gun,” Deirdre explains. A single headband, the component produced by the printer, takes about three hours to produce. Cutting the clear plastic into shields can get “stinky,” Deirdre says. That step takes place in a detached former garage at Chris’ parents’ house a few blocks away.

At first, Deirdre thought they’d produce 100 shields and be done, but soon they had nearly 20 volunteers wanting to help print and assemble the masks. They formed a collective called Shield Athens, and production jumped from three face shields a day to nearly 100. Each shield costs about $5 to make and is provided free of charge. By late April, they had produced nearly 2,000 shields.

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Nurse midwife Diana Calano wears her Shield Athens PPE. Contributed by Diana Calano

Nurse midwife Diana Calano wears her Shield Athens PPE. Contributed by Diana Calano
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Nurse midwife Diana Calano wears her Shield Athens PPE. Contributed by Diana Calano

Volunteer Brent Temple, a social worker in Athens, runs a 3D printer “about 18 hours a day” in his kitchen. He and his family make components including the headbands into which the plastic sheeting is gently curved and fitted. Every few days, they deliver their work to a box marked “incoming” on the Sugiuchi’s front porch.

Temple works with the homeless population and has been able to provide face shields for front-line workers in shelters. An actor who has performed with his wife Timera on the Athens theater scene, he says he’s “not surprised that a community of creative people would find the answer to the question, ‘What am I supposed to do now?’”

Diana Calano is a certified nurse midwife with Women’s Health Care Associates in Athens who is grateful for the security Shield Athens has afforded her while attending births at Piedmont Athens Regional Hospital and St. Mary’s Hospital. She praises the shields for being durable, “especially for re-use.”

Shield Athens operates in a homey style. Request for shields are made through the website at shieldathens.net. In good weather, grocery bags filled with 10 to 20 shields wait for pickup on a shelf in the Sugiuchis' front yard. If the weather's bad, the shelf is relocated to the front porch. A sign on the fence reads, "Shield Athens."

Deirdre laughs remembering one baffled recipient. “I give them our address, and they’re like, ‘This is just a house!”

Since the pandemic started, the Sugiuchis have been working 18 hours a day for five weeks making masks. They’re looking forward to taking what Deirdre calls a “pause” to prepare for a potential next wave of need and, she muses, “figure out a way to move it out of our house.”

Even when they take a short break on their porch, they’re not resting. Chris peels the coating from a new sheet of PETG plastic while he talks about the contributions the community has made to the couple’s effort. “It’s exciting to see how capable and involved” friends and neighbors are, he says.

One recent day, Deirdre takes some time to work on revisions to her memoir. 3D printers clank and whirr on a long table adjacent to a bookcase in the Sugiuchis’ home. On the front porch, several paper grocery bag of face shields await pickup.

MORE INFORMATION

Learn more about Shield Athens at shieldathens.net.