The Mask Initiative started out in AJ Apone’s garage in Newhall. Now, he has expanded to over 14 3-D printers and was donated a retail space for his project. Credit: Jamie Araki/Canyons News.
The Mask Initiative started out in AJ Apone’s garage in Newhall. Now, he has expanded to over 14 3-D printers and was donated a retail space for his project. Credit: Jamie Araki/Canyons News.

Inside a Canyon Country strip mall, machines ring out through a building that was not nearly as crowded just three weeks ago. Now, more than a dozen 3D printers work to help provide a much-needed assist to a healthcare system in danger of being overwhelmed.

A.J. Apone is in his third week of printing face masks and preparing them to be donated to first responders. 

Apone and his father own a special effects and makeup company. The business – like many other nonessential ones in California – is temporarily shut down for face-to-face operations. So, it’s safe to say, like many of us, he has quite a bit of time on his hands.

He decided to spend those extra minutes, hours and days to help others. After a bit of research, Apone learned how to print the masks effectively. With more information, he discovered it would be difficult to produce them efficiently.

“I started with two machines,” Apone said. “Now I have 17. It’s been really remarkable to see what kind of community has backed me.” 

Apone gave the endeavor a name –– The Mask Initiative. Within hours of advertising the free masks, an outpouring of requests, support and eventually money overwhelmed the man. 

“We’re here to protect the people that are protecting us,” said Apone, noting his efforts would help healthcare workers and first responders greatly.

The help Apone’s masks will provide is protection from COVID-19, a strain of the coronavirus family. The respiratory virus has reached the pandemic level, which is a term describing its reach. To date, COVID-19 has infected at least 2.4 million people and killed more than 163,000 people worldwide, per the World Health Organization.

 The sights of neighbors and coworkers wearing a mask daily has become a temporary normal. On April 10, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health – in accordance with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and state mandates – issued a recommendation to people going inside an essential business or within close proximity to another person not in their family – wear a mask or face covering. 

The effort to add a volume and mitigate a shortfall of masks and face coverings is no easy task nor one accomplished alone in the Santa Clarita Valley. 

Anya Smalanick is one of many Santa Clarita residents sewing masks by hand.

Smilanick is a part of a virtual sewing circle on Facebook called, “Mask Makers in Santa Clarita”. She joins other administrators in the group to coordinate volunteers. Within two days, more than 250 people had joined. Ten days later, the group encompassed more than 450 members donating more than 1,500 masks. 

Credit: Anya Smalanick

For 3D printer Apone, it quickly became a challenge when he realized it would be expensive to keep printing more masks. So, he turned to crowdfunding.

Through Facebook and Venmo, Apone raised enough money to buy more printers and continue making and packaging his masks at a faster rate.

“We’re basically at $25,000 just from word-of-mouth and people believing in the idea,” Apone said. “What I’m doing is for the greater good.”

 Apone’s words resonate with Smalanick. She believes any deed goes a long way in troubling times.

“(Our group) is about much more than making masks,” Smilinack said. “It’s creating friendships and a community for those in isolation. Instead of watching the news and feeling helpless, we are able to be part of the solution, if even in a small way.” 

“It provides a sense of purpose during a difficult time.”  

Canyons News reporters  Austin Chase, Cristina Lombardo, Emily Berryhill and Sasha Strater contributed to this story .

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