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Lohmann: Henrico couple teams up on a project 'to make things better'
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Lohmann: Henrico couple teams up on a project 'to make things better'

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Wanting to help during the pandemic, Alex and Clenise White of Richmond, Va., have made almost 3,000 reusable face shields and donated them to hospitals, free clinics and people around the region. Video by Alexa Welch Edlund/Times-Dispatch

This all started simply because Clenise and Alex White wanted to do something to help.

They didn’t have any clue back in March — when the coronavirus pandemic was starting to blow up and they got the idea that making face shields might be a good way to pitch in — that by the end of August they would have acquired four 3D printers for their home office — four! — and essentially become experts at producing the personal protective equipment.

At this point, they’ve donated almost 3,000 of the reusable shields to health care personnel at hospitals, free health care clinics and other types of organizations, even barbershops, across Virginia and around the country.

“We just decided that would be our contribution to the community to make things better,” Clenise said of the couple’s willingness to bear the not-inconsiderable expense of what they’re doing.

Added Alex, “Plus, it gave us a good, fun project. It’s not all self-sacrifice. We learned about 3D printing, and we have something to really keep us occupied while we’re stuck in the house.”

Clenise operates a tax-preparation business from their home in western Henrico County; Alex is retired from careers with the U.S. Department of Justice and Virginia state government, and he has written and published about 45 camera guidebooks.

Clenise was in the middle of tax season in March when Alex suggested they consider making face shields — “I have plenty of projects, I didn’t need another one,” she said with a laugh when I asked half-jokingly if they were that desperate for an interesting project — so she was slightly standoffish about the idea at first.

But Alex kept researching it, and she kept thinking about what was going on.

“We were saddened at how unprepared the government seemed to be in getting PPE to people and hopping on it as soon as things happened,” she said. “I got to thinking about the needs that were out there, and about how the coronavirus was killing people. It was just so sad how fast it was going.”

So, they embarked on the project that she figured “would be for a month or two.”

After running the printers almost round-the-clock for much of the summer, they have finally turned them off for periods in August, waiting for the next surge in demand (and also so she can catch up on her annual studies of the new tax laws).

They came to have four 3D printers, ranging in price from $1,200 to $2,500, because they bought one, tinkered with it trying to make it work, and then kept adding different ones as they learned from YouTube videos and settled on a National Institutes of Health-approved shield model.

Besides the cost of the printers, there are clear plastic sheets to purchase, as well as long rolls of elastic band for the headbands, super glue, rolls of insulation foam and printing filament — the plastic material that becomes pliable at an elevated temperature and is fed through the printer to make the shield’s plastic visor and strap lock (a small buckle).

Spools of the sort of filament the Whites use run between $20 and $40 per roll. A single roll will turn out about 15 shields, said Alex, who keeps them supplied with materials — not an easy task back in the spring — and has figured out how to keep the printers properly calibrated so they print efficiently.

However, the printers don’t do all of the work. After they run from 2 to 2.5 hours to produce each visor and strap lock, Clenise takes over, filing any rough edges, punching holes in the clear plastic sheet that gets attached to the visor and then attaching the sheet to the knobs on the visor, gluing a piece of soft foam onto the curved area of the visor, then threading an elastic band through the side loops of the visor to form the headband and attaching it to the buckle in back of the visor. Clenise then gathers the finished face shields into groups of five, places them in plastic bags and boxes them for delivery.

Early on, the Whites were handling all sides of what became a true operation, including the time-consuming process of searching out organizations interested in having the face shields and then dropping them off.

By May, though, their project had been taken on as a mission of their church, St. Mary Catholic, where parish nurse Nancy Springman became a third member of their team, taking care of orders and distribution.

One of the grateful recipients of the shields has been CrossOver Healthcare Ministry, one of the largest charitable clinics in Virginia, which has received 100 of them, and the Whites have offered to send more.

“This has been huge,” said Dr. Mike Murchie, CrossOver’s medical director, noting the shields are not only free to the clinic, a volunteer-driven organization constantly scrambling to make its limited resources work, but the quality of the shields is “exceedingly high.”

“They’re better than the ones we’ve obtained from any other source that I can recall,” he said. “They’re very comfortable.”

The price of similarly high-quality shields run as much as about $13 apiece, he said.

Murchie said he considers CrossOver “ground zero” for the pandemic in Richmond because the clinic’s low-income clientele represent all of the risk factors for the spread of the disease: people living in multigenerational settings, in smaller housing units, with jobs — many on the front lines — where teleworking is not possible and where paid sick leave is not an option.

The positivity rate since CrossOver began COVID-19 testing in March is 19%, and the clinic has worked with a total of 175 known cases. Murchie appreciated the Whites for “thinking about how they can serve and care for others in their community, especially people that are most vulnerable and most at-risk during this time.”

“Just truly inspiring to our whole team to see their efforts and their thoughtfulness in thinking of our patient population as well as all the other people they’re serving with this,” he said.

The pandemic has hit close to home for the Whites. A friend who was a priest died of COVID-19, and Clenise’s brother is recovering from a bout with the virus. The Whites have been very careful in their movements since the pandemic started, staying mostly quarantined at home as they protect Clenise’s 105-year-old mother who lives with them.

The Whites, who moved to Richmond in 2008, work from home anyway, so this hasn’t been a particular hardship in that regard, and the couple that’s been married 37 years said they enjoy doing projects together, even when Clenise turns on music and, to prevent the assembly line-like work from getting too monotonous, starts belting out opera.

“I have the worst voice in the world,” she said with a laugh, “but there’s no one who minds.”

Not even Alex.

“We’re very compatible,” Clenise said. “We have a lot of interests in common.”

It’s a list that now includes making face shields — with more to come.

“We’ll probably start back up in September full-force again,” Clenise said.

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