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A website begun by Bay Area teenagers to connect local businesses with personal protective equipment providers has quickly grown to become a nationwide student-led effort to help communities stay safe.
Sky Yang, a 17-year-old senior at Dublin High School, started the student-run nonprofit Break the Outbreak (BTO) in April in response to the nationwide shortage of PPE.
“When I heard on Nextdoor that restaurants and grocery stores do not have proper PPE while the virus was gaining traction, I felt that as a member of society I should give back to society,” he said. “It’s very important for us to do the best we can to flatten the curve.”
BTO focuses on providing restaurants, food banks and other local service centers with free PPE. So far, the group has donated more than 1,500 face masks and protective face shields to grateful recipients at nonprofits, and at such businesses as The Veg Hub, Banana Garden, and Jamba Juice. The group’s GoFundMe campaign, where BTO raises most of its funds, has accumulated more than $2,000 in donations. And most PPE it donates is handmade by trained team members, which keeps costs low and maximizes PPE donations.
“[BTO’s] emergency support keeps our seniors and caregivers safe and it’s a meaningful gift,” said John V. Blazek, chief development officer at On Lok Lifeways, a local senior care facility, which received 85 masks and shields from BTO’s San Jose Chapter in July. “We really appreciate it.”
Another thankful mask recipient is Gale Gifford, 94, a World War II veteran and Dublin resident. Gifford explained that since his neighbors visit him often the masks are simple but crucial items to have around.
BTO actually began as a simple website where people could post for help if they needed it.
“I realized that there was no centralized platform for people to reach out for help; everyone was posting on Reddit, Facebook, everywhere,” Yang recalled.
After realizing that he could help more people in the community if he expanded his operations, Yang enlisted the help of a few friends and started the first BTO chapter in their hometown of Dublin. Soon thereafter, BTO expanded to include the San Ramon and Livermore chapters, and now there are 28 BTO chapters in 13 states, including Utah and New Jersey.
Adithya Krishnaraj, co-director of the San Ramon chapter and a senior at Dougherty Valley High School, said that BTO is working to improve its process every day in order to serve the community effectively. An example is the way the group overcame early difficulties in creating quality face masks.
“We had to ask our members, ‘Would you use this mask yourself?,’” Krishnaraj said. “People started realizing that we need to do a better job with production.”
To standardize the mask and shield production process, BTO created a detailed video and procedure for members to follow when making PPE. All of their equipment is now checked thoroughly before being donated.
It might be an extra step in the process, but something worth doing as all BTO team members emphasize their compassion for the community as the main reason why they joined the organization.
Lizzie Davies and Palak Guleria, co-directors of the Livermore chapter and juniors at Granada High School, reminisce about drinking boba and hanging out after school at Fat Straw, a small bubble tea shop in downtown Livermore.
“I love our city, and seeing the valued members of it slowly lose their livelihoods breaks my heart,” Davies said. “Now we get to give back to the businesses that helped us get through school.” Krishnaraj and other BTO members express similar sentiments about having a “duty to protect the community” and local businesses.
Luckily, BTO is not done growing. According to Yang, new chapters are being added all over the country — there are four chapters in New York alone. Additionally, Guleria and other chapter directors have reached out to elected officials, including Dublin Vice Mayor Arun Goel and Rep. Eric Swalwell, to broaden their relationships and build the organization’s credibility. And the organization has added hand sanitizer to its care packages.
BTO is here to stay for the long run, and Yang, and other members, hopes to add new dimensions, including vaccine awareness campaigns, economic package donations and a mobile app to supplement its website.
“As youth, we are the next generation,” Yang said. “We have to take action ourselves, put our foot forward and shape the world into a better tomorrow.”