Alex Torres had the tail end of his senior year at Gilroy High School taken away from him as the coronavirus pandemic forced the school to shut down.
All his plans for prom, graduation and the senior trip to Six Flags Magic Mountain were gone in a flash.
But the future mechanical engineer took an initiative to focus on what he can make happen instead of dwelling on what could’ve happened.
“I can help print face shields, I can help assemble the mask to go with those shields and help make a difference in a global pandemic,” he said.
Alex and his mother, Diana Torres, have helped produce 250 Verkstan model face shields, which can be sanitized and used multiple times for hospital use.
Diana Torres, who is a paraprofessional in the STEAM Lab at Las Animas Elementary, said there was an unsettled feeling after the lockdown and she felt lost.
“It was just this hole, this empty hole,” Torres said. “It was just a feeling of I need something to fill that empty space and empty feeling.”
Alex Torres, who volunteers at the STEAM Lab, said it was strange for him because normally he’d get up for school but now he didn’t have anything to do. It was routine he’d been doing since kindergarten.
“Everything felt kind of whack and out of control, so in doing something like a project that isn’t about you but it’s about helping in the much grander scheme of things,” he said. “It gave a sense of purpose and a sense of hope at a time where everything seemed kind of hopeless.”
The first 25 shield prints went to a team of doctors and nurses at a Kaiser Permanente Hospital in Orange County, where Torres’ aunt works.
“We were very nervous worrying that when a real life task with doctors and nurses, they would crumble and fall apart and not stand up to being disinfected and bleached,” Diana Torres said.
But the masks worked. Alex and his mother began to distribute them free-of-charge to doctors and pharmacies in Gilroy.
They signed up to volunteer through MasksforDocs.com, which focuses on both hospitals and senior centers.
Diana Torres’ family is from New York, and they started sending shipments to doctors, nurses and agencies in need back to the East Coast.
She’s also part of a Star Wars group called the 501st Legion, which has a group based in New York. The group reached out for masks and Torres delivered.
She said it’s been tough not being able to visit the East Coast and help her family, especially her father who is gravely ill.
“I can’t physically be there for him,” she said. “But I can support what’s going on in New York in some way by my efforts here.”
They currently have three 3-D printers. Alex Torres said mass production has been a challenge for them.
He said speed is a factor along with getting a print that can repeat again. Plus, pieces break down and nozzles get clogged anytime a machine runs for long periods of time.
“It’s running them in a way they’re not meant to run but it’s a great challenge,” Diana Torres said. “In a STEAM room you’re always pushing the limits of science.”
Torres said she believes Alex is benefiting a great deal from working on the project.
“But it’s also knowing what a serious situation is going on in the world,” Torres said.
Alex will attend Santa Clara University in the fall where he’ll be majoring in mechanical engineering.
The mom and son duo said they’ll produce the shields until the crisis is over.
“For me it’s a sense of purpose,” Alex said. “Beyond school, it’s a reason for me to get out of bed in the morning. It’s not just me trying to keep my grades up…it’s really for a greater good.”