An effort to make COVID-19 masks for lip readers has turned into overwhelming demand for a Sun Prairie woman.

Renee Dorsey of Rainbows End Designs initially began her home-based business making tutus.

“I make little girls tutus, which I started back in 2011 and it’s grown into embroidered designs,” Dorsey said during a recent interview. “I make shirts, applique shirts for little girls and boys, and I started making reading pillows that are embroidered. I’ve been sewing since my grandmother taught me when I was 5 years old, so I have been sewing on and off all my life.”

That changed after a conversation with her father one day a few weeks ago.

“My father is deaf in one ear and he wears a hearing aid in the other, and on a recent trip to his audiologist, she told him that he was actually reading lips, whether he knew it or not,” Doresey recalled. “And she said that there was a need for people who read lips to be able to see the lips when somebody is wearing a mask. And so he knew that I was making masks and he called me and said, ‘can you do a mask that people can see the lips?’ So I did some research. And, that’s how it started.”

The “smile masks,” as Dorsey refers to them have that name for a reason: “It’s because you can see the smile, your smile through the window in the mask.”

Why?

“With young children, especially, whether they are preschool or kindergarten, first graders, they’re starting school. And they’re a little nervous about going to school, especially with everything that’s going on with the coronavirus,” Dorsey explained.

“And they need to see an adult’s emotion on the face. And with a regular mask, you can’t do that. You have to be able to see the smile or see the sadness in the face, and that helps them interpret more of what the teacher’s saying. If the teacher’s reading a story, a very good teacher always makes faces or has a certain inflection in their voice,” Dorsey added.

“And when the child is able to see the expressions on the face, they can interpret more of what the story is about. When a teacher is working with special needs kids, whether they’re autistic or maybe they’re in a speech therapy situation in the classroom where they’re learning how to make sounds with their mouth,” Dorsey said. “If they have a speech impediment, they need to be able to see the teacher’s face, lips, and tongue, the way they’re moving to form the sound to be able to mimic that.”

Although she’s only been making the smile mask for a few weeks, their popularity has grown exponentially.

“It’s been overwhelming. The first order I had was a doctor who works with autistic patients and I have had a tremendous amount of teachers wanting them for back to school, whether they’re in a regular classroom setting or they’re they work with special needs children or a speech therapist,” Dorsey said.

“I have several audiologists who have made orders,” Dorsey added. “I have people whose parents are in a memory care facility. And so they wanted those to be able to visit their relatives and be able for their mothers or their fathers to be able to see their lips and see when they talk, if they have a hearing loss problem.”

Dorsey charges $15 per mask plus shipping. “It’s a very involved design and they take about 45 minutes to make the smile masks, while my pleated masks take about 15,” Dorsey explained. “It’s the same type of fabric. But there is the clear vinyl, which is plastic, and there’s a lot of stitching because you cut it and you stitch it and then you cut it and stitch it. And it’s an elaborate design. So it takes a long time.”

The plastic is removable and washable, as are the masks themselves.

Although people can only order through her Rainbows End Facebook page, Dorsey has seen high demand.

“My orders are into September,” Dorsey said, “because I’ve had orders for about 200 masks at this point.”

Dorsey is asking her customers with orders, and even those placing them, to be patient. She said she’s asked another woman who makes masks if she could help.

“If people want to order, they need to understand that I’m just a mom with a 9 and 11 year old, who are going back to virtual learning,” Dorsey said, “and the demand has been very high, so I’m working as best as I can on them and they just need to be patient and I’ll be able to get masks to them.”

For more information, including frequently asked questions about the masks and their costs, go online to https://www.facebook.com/RainbowsEndDesigns.

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