Someone to be thankful for: Schaumburg High student leads mask distribution efforts

  • Emma Davenport, 17, of Hanover Park and her organization have made and distributed more than 45,000 masks. "I felt helpless in the pandemic and wanted to help the community." These have been distributed to abuse shelters, nursing homes, food pantries and hospitals, all made with donated material.

      Emma Davenport, 17, of Hanover Park and her organization have made and distributed more than 45,000 masks. "I felt helpless in the pandemic and wanted to help the community." These have been distributed to abuse shelters, nursing homes, food pantries and hospitals, all made with donated material. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 11/26/2020 9:47 AM

While most high school students have found enough to contend with in 2020, from the changes in their schooling to the disruption of their social lives brought by the COVID-19 pandemic, Emma Davenport stepped up to the adult responsibility of being the Illinois State Lead of the national grass-roots Masks Now Coalition.

"I can safely say I'm the only 17-year-old in the organization," the Schaumburg High School senior from Hanover Park said with a laugh.

 
Emma Davenport, 17, of Hanover Park sorts through boxes of donated materials and fabrics, which are made into masks for adults and children, then distributed to abuse shelters, nursing homes, food pantries and hospitals, all free.
  Emma Davenport, 17, of Hanover Park sorts through boxes of donated materials and fabrics, which are made into masks for adults and children, then distributed to abuse shelters, nursing homes, food pantries and hospitals, all free. - Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

And that's just part of why her AP U.S. History teacher from last year, Mary Lopez, calls Emma someone to be thankful for this holiday season.

"I think Emma is the kind of student that gives us so much hope for the future," Lopez said. "Emma has a ton of energy. She's involved in a million different things. At no point did I find this surprising. She's a firecracker."

Emma said the coalition quickly evolved from the merging of local efforts that sprang into existence in March to make and distribute masks to people and agencies that needed them most.

Much to her surprise, among the very first were professional health care facilities, which were soon falling short in their normal supply of personal protective equipment. The group received a request for 14,000 masks in its first week.

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"I thought that was crazy at the time," Emma said. "Even when I started doing this, I was skeptical that there would be a requirement for masks."

Over the eight months since, the coalition has distributed nearly 45,000 homemade masks to those who have difficulty obtaining them. The most common destination these days are such social service organizations such as homeless and domestic abuse shelters and food pantries.

Shipping masks and soliciting donations have dominated Emma's time. In order to get it all done, she has drawn on organizational skills built from being a self-described "theater kid," as well as her prior work with Hanover Township's Backpack Buddies program for low-income families in need of school supplies.

Her ability to sew masks was the skill she learned from scratch in the early days of the pandemic.

Emma Davenport, 17, of Hanover Park and her organization have made and distributed more than 45,000 masks to those most in need of them.
  Emma Davenport, 17, of Hanover Park and her organization have made and distributed more than 45,000 masks to those most in need of them. - Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer
                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

What probably made her especially sensitive to the need for masks from the get-go was the fact that her brother is already immunocompromised and she herself has asthma, Emma said.

She also comes from a family with a history of volunteerism.

"My family is oriented in doing crisis response," she said.

Lopez said she's seen many of her students stepping up to new responsibilities during the pandemic, but in most cases it involves things like tackling extra work around the house for their parents or tutoring younger siblings.

"Emma is really the standout as far as it goes," she said.

And Emma has demonstrated empathy in a number of ways, from her sensitivity to the people around her to how she interpreted the lessons of the U.S. history class in which they met, Lopez said.

"She's really a kid who transcends in a lot of ways," she added. "She'd often check if I was OK."

The economic instability driving the need for Emma's Masks Now Coalition is also affecting many students' families at Schaumburg High School, Lopez said. But students taking her history classes right now seem to be benefiting from learning about precedents of nationwide struggles, she said.

"As I tell my students, living through history is almost never fun," Lopez said. "We just have to move people forward."

But Emma is certainly an example of her belief that this generation of young people is going to be fine.

Even with hopes for a COVID-19 vaccine on the horizon, Emma believes there is still a lot of work ahead for the Masks Now Coalition.

"I think our services will be needed well past Christmas and into the new year," she said.

For information on how to volunteer or donate, visit the coalition's website or the Illinois chapter's Facebook page.

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