Alums lend a hand in unexpected ways during pandemic

Author: Jamie Oppenheim
April 29, 2020
Alumni Rachel Garcia and Thu Tran performing a concert from their car
Photo Credit: Amira Maxwell Photography

Alumni Rachel Garcia and Thu Tran, who perform as The Singer and The Songwriter, held concerts from their car when the COVID-19 pandemic first hit the Bay Area. 

From spreading joy through music to making protective gear, the Gator community is dedicated to helping others

Singer and alumna Rachel Garcia (B.A., ’08) says the idea for the Songmobile came to her in the middle of the night. The concept was simple: Get in a car, drive to the homes of fans and play short concerts from the car, all while observing physical distancing recommendations. Soon after Garcia’s brainstorm, she and Thu Tran (B.A., ’08), the other half of the musical duo The Singer and The Songwriter, made it a reality. In the first weeks of the Bay Area’s COVID-19 shelter-in-place order, they played 52 mini-concerts. It was the perfect cure for listeners’ stay-at-home blues, Garcia says.

“We’d pull up to someone’s house, and they’d be sitting in their lawn chairs or in their garage with popcorn,” she said. “Some put up signs that their kids made. One family hung up a disco ball. The Songmobile ended up being a fun thing that families could get excited about together. It created a sense of occasion.

The Petaluma band has since moved operations online for safety reasons. People can still book private concerts, but the duo now performs via Zoom instead of from their car. It’s a small dose of solace, connection and joy during an uncertain time, Garcia says. She and Tran, San Francisco State University alums who met as theatre arts students, are just a few members of the Gator family who are finding ways to help others during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In Santa Clarita Valley, alumnus and owner of a special effects makeup company A.J. Apone (B.A., ’11) turned his 3-D printing hobby into a large-scale mask-making operation, the Mask Initiative, in a matter of weeks.

“Before, I’d print silly things like the mask from the film ‘The Mask,’” he said. After the pandemic hit, he decided to print a mask based on a design available online. Next he focused on the filter. Inside his reusable masks are HEPA filters, graded for filtering viruses and bacteria, he says.

Apone shared the finished product on Instagram and mentioned he would accept donations. Within minutes, he received his first donation. The generosity hasn’t stopped. He’s received enough funding to buy 19 3-D printers. He’s donating masks to hospitals and other frontline workers locally and as far away as Florida and Connecticut. Since starting April 1, Apone has taken more than 400 orders and distributed more than 600 masks.

“It’s been wonderful to witness humans being humans,” he said. “People are wanting to help, and they’re really coming out of the woodwork to do it. It’s been unbelievable.”

Meanwhile, in Louisville, Kentucky, alumna Olivia Griffin (B.A., ’09) is busy sewing and selling cloth masks online. Griffin studied dance and costume design at San Francisco State and now owns the Mysterious Rack, a hat shop in Louisville. The Kentucky Derby is held in Louisville in the spring, so this is usually her busy season. Since that’s postponed, she pivoted to mask making, she says. She’s using the proceeds from her online sales to make and donate masks to nursing homes.

“In Kentucky, a lot of our coronavirus outbreaks are centered in nursing homes,” she said. “If we can stop the outbreak at the starting point, then the hospitals won’t be overwhelmed. And these people are the most vulnerable. I have a woman helping me who’s reaching out to every nursing home in Kentucky to prioritize who needs masks first.”

A few states over, in Pennsylvania, alumna Mary Fennelly (M.S., ’83) is helping others in the way she does best — by listening. When she lived in San Francisco, she volunteered as a phone crisis operator at San Francisco Suicide Prevention, which is when she realized she had a talent for counseling. She then pursued her graduate degree in the field at SF State. Now she helps children with behavior issues.

Recently, she took out ads in her local newspapers in the Philadelphia area offering free counseling sessions by phone. “It’s for parents who are going nuts,” she said. So far, no one’s taken her up on it, but she says as the months drag on, they’ll call. And when they do, she’ll be all ears.