Inspired by Dr. Fauci, Gwinnett boy, 11, starts campaign for quality masks for every kid

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Malon James, 11, became obsessed with face masks in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, watching children’s specials from his Gwinnett County home that featured Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

A Fauci convert, Malon made sure all his friends wore masks when they came out to play, but their flimsy disposable ones disheartened him. Malon told his mother that he wanted to get children the safest masks possible.

A year later, he stood in a Norcross mobile home park, giving out hundreds of sturdy cloth masks to small children and their families. He wore dress clothes and a face covering that proclaimed, “Everyone deserves a mask.”

“Not everyone has reusable masks and all these disposable masks are not as reliable,” Malon said. “I want to prevent people from getting the coronavirus and spreading it.”

Gwinnett County funded Malon’s efforts with $100,000 from last year’s federal COVID-19 relief package. Malon teamed up with his mother, executive director of the nonprofit organization Don’t Count Me Out, to apply for the funding.

“He loves Dr. Fauci and he knows there’s certain people who can’t help themselves,” said Malon’s mother, Monique James.

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Don’t Count Me Out was formed to support low-income people arrested on low-level misdemeanors, but the organization pivoted last year to COVID-19 response, James said.

With the grant funding, Malon and his mother’s organization bought more than 13,000 masks directly from companies at a nonprofit rate. Malon partnered with the local health department and other officials to distribute them. The grant also reimbursed Don’t Count Me Out for mileage and promotional materials related to the mask campaign, James said.

Malon is homeschooled, but he and his mother used information from Gwinnett County Public Schools and the state to identify local schools with the highest poverty rates and percentages of students who are migrants, homeless or receiving federal benefits. They targeted neighborhoods in the boundaries of those schools for mask giveaways. They don’t hesitate to interact with families in person, as long as everyone wears masks.

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They go door to door and hand out masks to students getting off school buses, many of whom wear threadbare disposable face coverings, James said. Malon teams up with agencies to give out masks at events such as the Semana Del Niño, or Children’s Week, party that Families First hosted last week at the Norcross trailer park.

About two dozen people — small children and their families — ate an early lunch complete with Jell-O and put on their new cloth masks. Throughout the afternoon, more families collected masks as they came and went.

Antonia Pérez, 42, a mother of five, and Emilia Colotl, 43, who has four children, each picked up about 15 cloth masks for their families.

“It’s a way of protecting ourselves,” Perez said in Spanish. “Sometimes people can’t buy them.”

Guadalupe Martinez, 24, took masks for herself and her 4-year-old son.

“Every time we go out, he wears the mask,” Martinez said. “At first he didn’t want to, but it’s part of his life already.”

The children painted watercolors with Girl Scouts and ran around with Tutu and Chachi, therapy toy poodles that Malon brings to events and families upon request.

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Malon said he and his friends plan to create an online gaming tournament that will raise money for the dogs’ care and grooming.

James said her son takes the initiative to help others because he’s always been around people who are involved in community issues. But the dress shirts, suits and ties he wears to every event are James’ mother’s influence.

“I did not make that guy,” James said, laughing. “I had him, but I did not make him.”