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Omaha Magazine

Mahika’s Masks: Millard Teen Sourced PPE For Those Who Needed it Most This Spring

Dec 28, 2020 08:53AM ● By Katrina Markel
Mahika Kanchanam wearing light pink mask

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The beginning of the pandemic is burned into the minds of many: public health information changed rapidly, people adjusted to working and learning from home, and it was nearly impossible to find toilet paper and hand sanitizer. Health care organizations couldn’t source enough surgical masks, never mind the rest of the population having access to face coverings.

Meanwhile in Millard, 15-year-old Mahika Kanchanam saw an opportunity. If health care workers and school custodians needed personal protective equipment (PPE), perhaps a determined ninth-grade student could help. 

“I heard so many stories as it started to spread to Nebraska, and the numbers started to rise, and I realized that health care workers are putting their lives in danger in order to help us. I just felt like it was kind of like a responsibility to help,” said Mahika, who is now in 10th grade at Millard North. 

She started small by organizing adult volunteers to make masks. Using online patterns and tutorials, she learned how to sew, coordinated volunteers, and started a Go Fund Me account to raise funds for the project.

“I could do the pleated ones and I had others help me with, like the fitted face masks, which are a little harder to sew,” Mahika said. 

They made masks for everyday use from cotton because the material is breathable. 

“Here Mahika shows up and she’s procured a ton of—even to this day—the finest-looking masks you’ve seen. They have a little style to them,” said Loel Schettler, Mahika’s school counselor at Millard North. 

Schettler said that administrators from the school system wanted to celebrate Mahika for her efforts, and she was fine with that, but also clear about who would receive the masks. 

“It was cute. She didn’t object to making a [big] deal out of it, but clearly the intent was ‘No, I’m giving these to the custodians,’” Schettler said.

Mahika didn’t stop there. Masks were also sold to the community and the $1,400 raised from the sales went to Food Bank for the Heartland. She coordinated the construction of masks from a material called Halyard H600, a medical-grade fabric that can be sterilized with UV light. She said about 3,000 masks were eventually donated to local hospitals, especially UNMC.

“I was really just going onto Google, you know, just searching any way I could help and I did start with face masks. And as I kept researching I found out more about 3D-printing the face shields, which would definitely come in handy for the health care workers,” Mahika said. 

Mahika found open-source models for face shields and said that she began creating them with a friend who owned a 3D printer, “but it was taking a really long time and I knew that I wanted to help in a really big way.”

She collaborated with professional 3D print shops as far away as California, Florida, and Vancouver, British Columbia. 

“I wanted to do customized ear savers that read ‘Nebraska strong, Nebraska safe,’ which is kind of like the hashtag I used for my Go Fund Me page. And those I was able to get from Canada with Terry from Panda Props in Vancouver,” Mahika said. 

The project required some perseverance and sometimes a little parental backing. Her mom, Prathyusha, occasionally had to reassure people that her 15-year-old was serious about the project and would follow through with it.

“When she started there were so many obstacles,” Prathyusha said. “These were all very, very scarce commodities at that point in time, but she did not give up. She said, ‘Okay I can’t do this. What else can I do? Is there someone that will help me? So, I think that is a big learning kind of adventure that will stay with her.”

Ultimately, Mahika said some 4,000 pieces of protective equipment were donated to local hospitals. She made a deal with her parents that for every $1,000 she raised for the project, they would kick in another $100. She collected about $5,000 and Prathyusha and Ramesh Kanchanam chipped in an additional $500. 

Before the pandemic hit, Mahika volunteered at Methodist Women’s Hospital. She said she’s still interested in a health care career. 

“Right now I am leaning towards health care just because I’ve always been interested in science and I think it’s a great way to help," she said. I’ve always been a kid who like, wants to help people, whether it’s school or whether it be in my community, and I just feel like being in the health sciences field gives me that amazing opportunity.” 

Schettler believes that Mahika will have countless college and career options in her future and explained that she’s a rare combination of smarts, compassion, and an engaging personality. 

“I think someone who has that much game and yet thinks of others so much is a rare real deal, you know?” he said. 

Prathyusha said that she is grateful for the support her daughter received and that so many people from the community would trust a 15-year-old and volunteer or donate to the project. Of course, she’s also proud of what her daughter accomplished. 

“We are from India and whenever we take her to India we always try to show her the reality of the world. There are people who are struggling, there are people who are really in need, and we are privileged. We should have that empathy and kindness and help people wherever we can,” Prathyusha said.

Her daughter clearly took those lessons to heart. 

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This article was printed in the January/February 2021 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.