Impact Stories

Masks for Local Love: Cowichan elder spreading mask safety wisdom

Volunteers have been a big part of making us safer during the pandemic, including the prolific stitchers who are part of the Mask the Valley initiative in Cowichan.

We want to spread a simple message: wearing a mask is not about fear.

Wearing a mask is about protecting yourself and those around you.

Wearing a mask is about love.

And it’s one important part of how we’re protecting each other.

United Way Central & Northern Vancouver Island has provided tens of thousands of dollars in grants to fund the purchase of personal protective equipment (PPE) to support vulnerable people from the Malahat to Port Hardy. That funding comes from the Government of Canada’s Reaching Home: Canada’s Homelessness Strategy and Emergency Community Support Fund, and donors like you.

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But volunteers have been a big part of making us safer during the pandemic, including the prolific stitchers who are part of the Mask the Valley initiative in Cowichan.

They are putting down beloved sewing projects and using their own materials to make effective and beautifully made masks for their community, showing their local love.

Stella Johnny is one of these volunteers.

Stella is a Cowichan Tribes elder, and has been making masks. She’s also been posting videos sharing her perspective living through the pandemic, quarantining with sick family members and encouraging all to follow COVID-19 safety guidelines, including wearing masks.

Stella says she’s passing on what Dr. Bonnie Henry says, but in a different tone. “I put it in more of, I guess you could say, a mum or grandma approach,” says Stella with a small chuckle.

For many, her videos have been both uplifting and reaffirming of the steps we’re taking to protect each other.

And she knows the measures we take work, having been in the same house as family members who contracted COVID-19, while she didn’t.

“I was in quarantine as my brother and his wife were exposed, and they were very ill … Just seeing the impact on both of them really shed a lot of light for me to share with community members,” says Stella.

“We lived in the same house, and thank goodness I always practiced my personal safety … Being a survivor of aneurism, my immune system is really low.”

“When [my brother] was in the front room or in the hallway, I would back up into my room and I would just stay in there until they were out of the hallway. I went out of my way, I wore my mask in the house. And when they were in their rooms, here I was like a little mad lady with my bottle of bleach, doing all the door knobs and light switches. I probably freaked out my sister-in-law. She goes, ‘The door is moving.’ I didn’t tell her I was running around sanitizing all the doors,” she recounts with another chuckle.

“You have to look at life with a little bit of warped sense of humor sometimes,” she says. Though she shares her pain as well.

“The isolation was so traumatic. I think by maybe the second, third last day, my emotions were starting to rise. Those are things that I share in the videos as well.”

In her videos, Stella has also addressed the racism directed at the Cowichan people. “That was one of the hardest parts,” she says. Her answer to that racism has been a combination of scientific knowledge and cultural wisdom.

She says it’s the combination of cultural practices, making masks and following safety guidelines that have offered her layers of protection.

“Being a mask maker and working with your hands is a great re-director of your thoughts,” she says. “You are going to focus only on helping someone when you make this mask. Whereas if I’m not making a mask, I’m stressing over ‘Am I going to get it?’ But as the elders say, if you keep your hands busy, then your mind won’t get away.”

In response to those saying they don’t know what to do with themselves during this time, she directs them to the forest, and to work on their own health.

“We would go out to the forest and that’s where our medicine is. I would encourage everyone, regardless of what nationality you have, it’s medicine out there.”

“Until you can help yourself, you can’t help anyone else because your cup is too full.”

But when you wear a mask, you are protecting yourself and your community. Let’s do everything we can for our loved ones, for our seniors and elders who must pass on their wisdom to the young, and ourselves.

And know that wearing a mask is not a symbol of fear, but of care and love.

If you want to do more, inquire about volunteering at one of your local charities, learn how to make masks, or consider donating to United Way Central & Northern Vancouver Island.

If you are in need of help, please call 2-1-1, and a bc211 Navigator will direct you to supports near you.