RIO RANCHO, N.M. — A nursing student, a politician and a group of volunteers spent their summer making and delivering over 65,000 masks.
In addition to masks, Robin Thomson Carrillo Ortiz, founder of Operation Bandana New Mexico, helped accumulate donations for Navajo chapters. Donations included food, clothing, shoes, personal protective equipment, feminine products, she said.
“Everywhere we went, I felt like we should be dropping off the whole truck, and I felt apologetic. It was a real eye-opener for me,” Ortiz said.
With help from Sandoval County Treasurer Laura M. Montoya, Operation Bandana NM was able to coordinate with Navajo chapters to compile requests of what was needed.
Volunteers would make, deliver masks or donate supplies. Montoya was among the people delivering masks and fabric, she said.
“I would go meet different friends I have in the Navajo Nation. I would meet them literally on the side of the road in some places, put the masks on top of the hood of the vehicle and give them the masks,” Montoya said.
She spoke with Navajo Nation leaders to see what they needed, and then coordinated with others, including Ortiz, to get supplies delivered.
“I saw a lot of the beauty in the people during some of the worst times that we had to go through together,” Montoya said.
Operation Bandana started in March after Ortiz heard of a hospital in Indiana requesting the public to make or donate PPE for employees.
“I was rather appalled by that, and thought, ‘Well, gosh, I have sewn for 30 years; I can do that.’ So I got online and looked at a pattern and sat down at my dining room table to sew a few cloth masks, totally naive as to what I was walking into,” she said.
Soon, Ortiz was running an organization of about 500 volunteers and coordinating with the New Mexico National Guard and Air National Guard to get supplies and masks to the Navajo Nation.
“I met Laura while I was desperately searching for fabric. I am a quilter and quilters hoard fabric like dragons hoard gold, but the stash we thought would never end ended very quickly. So then I needed fabric and Laura was giving out fabric,” Ortiz said.
About a week after receiving donations from Montoya, Ortiz needed more fabric.
“So (Montoya) brought more fabric and … she was heading out to some native communities, on the Navajo Nation, and made the comment about needing to take them water because they didn’t have any running water, and I am not native to New Mexico. I am a military brat who has moved all over the place but never near native communities,” Ortiz said. “And I said, ‘What do you mean they don’t have running water?’ and (Montoya) said, ‘One-third of the Navajo Nation doesn’t have running water.’ That was news to me.”
Ortiz ran to her pantry to grab what water she had and continued to collect donations for Montoya to deliver.
In the early weeks of the pandemic, Ortiz had limited access to fabric.
“So the next thing I knew, I had been working with the governor’s office to gain access to some of the fabric stores,” she said.
Ortiz was able to gain access to a small fabric store and get about 200 yards of cloth, which would make 800 to 1,200 masks, she said.
“So let me put this in perspective for you: It is Wednesday (Sept. 2) and we have already given out over 600 masks this week,” Ortiz said.
She received a request from the governor’s office for 2,000 masks for the National Guard, she said.
“I said, ‘I would love to sew for the National Guard. Let’s put them on the list of people requesting masks. Let’s start sewing for them; I just have one little problem.’ She goes, ‘You need fabric,'” Ortiz said.
Operation Bandana became a vendor of the state, which means the state would pay for cloth.
Soon, Operation Bandana would request the National Guard’s help and use their tractor trucks. Tractor trucks can haul 19,000-34,000 pounds of cargo, according to the U.S. Army’s website.
They made dozens of trips, filling the trucks with supplies till they could not fit anything else, Ortiz said.
Through Facebook and other social media, the operation collaborated with other organizations to gather donations and resources.
Ortiz said the experience has reminded her why she wanted to go back to school at age 47 to become a nurse. She is enrolled in the dual program with Santa Fe Community College and the University of New Mexico for nursing.
“One of the reasons I went back to school was because I got tired of watching on the news and seeing hurricanes, earthquakes and floods and all of these disasters, and I wanted to run into the chaos. And having no skills to offer, I would just be more of a liability than an asset. And so, I said, ‘OK, that is it; I am going to go back to school and get those skills,'” she said.
Ortiz would like to become a community health nurse.
The state is contracting Operation Bandana to make 100,000 masks for the New Mexico Public Education Department, so the tailors can be paid, she said.
The operation has begun turning masks over to the department and is making over 5,000 a week, Ortiz said.
About 45 people are making masks for the department, and Ortiz is looking for more tailors. Visit operationbandananm.com to get involved.