Lauren Canady is proof you don’t have to make an overwhelmingly grand gesture during the pandemic to make a difference. Sometimes, less and simple are the way to go if you want to positively impact the most amount of people. She’s just 20-years-old and hasn’t even finished college, yet she’s figured out how to do what most people haven’t during the era of coronavirus: put others first—and doing so on a large scale. In short, she’s making see-through face shields for the deaf and hard of hearing, which is a better alternative for that specific demographic of people than ordinary masks as Canady’s solution allows for lip reading. The long version of her story, however, is worth a read all the same.
That story starts with an American Sign Language class she took over the summer at the University of Georgia, at which she’ll begin her junior year in a few weeks. The pre-med major says she enrolled in the class to help her in her quest to learn as many languages possible due to the importance of communication in the medical field.
“I had to write a paper on lip reading for one of my final projects for my ASL class. Until I started researching for that paper, I didn’t realize how important lip reading is and how important it is for deaf and hard of hearing people to see other people’s faces,” Canady explains. “That kind of catapulted me into thinking about how COVID has affected that particular community. I’m feeling isolated. Most people around me are feeling isolated. I can’t imagine what these people feel in today’s mask-wearing society when their primary form of communication is lip reading.”
For many people, the pandemic and the restrictions that stem from it have led to a feeling of powerlessness. This was especially true for Canady, who hated seeing people suffering for whatever reason and not being able to help them. She also says the pandemic has caused her a bit of anxiety, and she’s found that to be true for most other people as well. Instead of sitting on her hands, however, Canady put them to work, setting out to do something about the unfortunate situation she realized the hearing loss community is experiencing. As it turns out, her project has expanded beyond helping that community alone; it has evolved in a broader sense into an endeavor that gives back in general and takes care of the local school system as well as other educators and students elsewhere while simultaneously yet inadvertently helping ease the emotions Canady has experienced since the beginning of the pandemic.
About three weeks ago, she ordered the supplies for the prototype shield from Amazon. Once the supplies made it to her door, she took them to her aunt’s house and started fiddling with the trial. Today, she laughs when she remembers how ill-fit and ugly the initial creation was, but eventually, after approximately three versions, she perfected the shield into what she supplies to teachers and school staff for free these days. In addition to the 100+ teachers here in Emanuel County she has supplied to, Canady recently had a charter school reach out to her asking for shields for its entire staff.
“I posted on Facebook and talked about my protective face shields. In my post, I explained the masks are great for people who are hard of hearing, deaf, have special needs, or visual-learning kids who rely on reading lips. I specified the shields would be free for teachers since they’re on the frontlines now. I told people, especially teachers and school staff members, if they wanted a face shield for an extra layer of protection or to help bridge the communication gap to comment or message me, and the response was incredible.”
The next morning, she woke up to 50 messages. She also received some $200 in donations, a welcomed financial relief considering she had previously been spending her personal funds to purchase the materials.
Knowing she had a considerable amount of requests at that point, Canady enlisted the help of her roommate, De’Erica Handsom, another pre-med major at UGA, and her friend, Marissa Meeks, a pre-PA major at Augusta University. Both Handsom and Meeks, according to Canady, are “big into charity and helping other people,” just like the shield’s creator, so when she asked for their assistance, they didn’t hesitate to oblige. Together, the trio works a few hours each afternoon and has perfected the production process as the days have progressed. They use an assembly line to quicken the turnaround, which currently takes about 1 to 2 minutes per shield. The appearance of the shields as well as the fit are both much better now as well.
The process from start to now hasn’t been a completely smooth ride, but the end product is well worth the bumps in the road.
“There have definitely been some struggles along the way; this hasn’t come easy the whole way. One specific example I can think of is when I promised someone I’d make a delivery on a certain date and the materials weren’t delivered on time, so I had to drive an hour to get the stuff I needed to stay on schedule,” Canady admits. “The best thing throughout this, no matter what frustrations or hardships I’ve come across along the way, is how much of a difference these shields really make. I didn’t expect this many people to have this need, and I didn’t expect so many people to have it in their hearts to help financially. This whole process has made me emotional a few times.”
One of those emotional days came when she delivered the masks to a local school and encountered a deaf student who would directly benefit from her volunteerism. So far, she has supplied 50 shields between Swainsboro Primary School and the pre-K, dropped off a box of 30 to Twin City Elementary, given shields to all ECI teachers, totaling around 125 in total so far in the community. Swainsboro Middle School actually let her down the hallway to the classroom of the special needs teacher who would be using the shields for her hearing loss students.
“Once I made it to the classroom, I met this little girl. I signed my name to her because that was the only thing I could remember at the time, and she was so excited I knew sign language!” says the 2018 ECI grad. “Knowing that shield would help her… That’s what makes this worth it. Little moments like that make all this work worthwhile.”
Yet, just how far the impact of her shields will reach and, consequently, how many more people will be positively affected by them are two concepts that are hard to grasp at this point. Thanks to her post on Facebook, however, the reach of her project will expand at least to Newnan. A teacher within that charter school asked if she would be interested in helping them as well, and Canady, of course, after she worked through the shock that her project had stretched to an entire school in another district, said yes. The number of shields the school needs is unclear as of Canady’s interview with The Blade on Monday, August 10, at noon, but she’s prepared to fill whatever need they have within reason.
In addition to the shields requested by the school up in Newnan, Canady is still taking requests on a weekly basis. This week, she has room for more. (Last week, she says, would’ve been a different story.) The masks are free for school personnel while the charge for everyday people who want one is at cost, $1.50. Anything over the $1.50 amount is considered a donation and is automatically funneled back into a pool for her expenses to cover additional shields, so the entire operation is nonprofit. She is still accepting donations via Venmo at Lauren-Canady-3, or donors can drop off their contributions at CPR Fitness in Swainsboro.
“I want everyone to know I am so thankful for all the donations received so far as well as any donations we might receive in the future,” Canady says to that point. “If we have any extra money after providing shields for the entire Emanuel County School System, leftover donations will go toward buying school supplies and bookbags for children in need.”
Whether people use the shields, donate, or support her morally, Canady hopes everyone stays safe during COVID-19. Given her platform, she says, “I just hope others will think about everybody else instead of just themselves. Take the words from experts and not just anybody on Facebook. This virus should not be a political thing; it should be a compassion thing. Masks don’t protect us, but they do protect other people. Wearing a mask is a completely selfless act. I hope everybody uses their heads and their hearts and do the right thing.
“This pandemic for me has been about how it has affected others. I’ve been totally privileged during this ordeal, and I freely admit that. I’ve survived on scholarship money, so I didn’t have to work. I have a place to stay and quarantine if I need to. My school closed, and I didn’t have a job or kids to worry about… But that doesn’t mean I’ve stopped thinking about other people. In fact, I’ve thought about other people more throughout this pandemic. Not only is this project about empathy and thinking of other people, it’s also about how a project like this can be an outlet for people to gain back and element of control and ease anxiety throughout the pandemic.
“It’s easy to see an issue, complain, and not do anything about it. COVID-19 affects everybody differently and we’re often aware of how it’s affecting other people, but we expect someone else to fix whatever those people are going through. Through this ordeal, I’ve learned if you want to see a change, you have to do it yourself. To that note, my advice to everyone is if you see something, do something. It can actually make a difference.”
CANADY WITH TWO OF THE DEAF STUDENTS SHE MET, BAILEY AND AIDEN WILKERSON. THESE TWO ARE IN SHARON EDENFIELD’S CLASS AT SWAINSBORO MIDDLE SCHOOL. CANADY SAYS THEIR INTERPRETER, JUDY POWELL, IS SOMEONE WHO WAS HAVING COMPLICATIONS COMMUNICATING WITH THEM THROUGH A MASK AND IS NOW USING A SHIELD INSTEAD.