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From aquatics to masks: Meet the EL mask ambassadors

November 10, 2020

From the looks of it, Dee Careathers' office in the Hannah Community Center is typical. But in reality, her office has become a hub for ever-changing community programs.

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the normalcy for all and left no stone unturned, including the Hannah Community Center aquatics team.

Careathers' team, which she leads as the center's aquatics specialist, once handled the pool, then summer outdoor dining and now, the East Lansing Mask Ambassadors Program.

The city planning commission approached Careathers and asked her and the team to run the program after noticing a need for masks and hand sanitizer downtown.

"We also could see that some of our residents that live in the downtown area that might be homeless, might need extra assistance, they didn't always have access to masks and hand sanitizer," Careathers said. "So that was something we also wanted to provide for them."

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The team ranges from high school to college students who hope to offer a welcoming presence downtown. They also provide information on city events and maps, Careathers said.

They do not approach people without a mask, rather, the ambassadors let those who need a mask come to them.

"We've seen how volatile things can get about masks," Careathers said. "Our main priority is making sure our employees are safe."

The ambassadors stay at a tent and are not there to judge, Careathers said.

"For the most part, it's people coming up for information, people coming up for masks, because we're not really putting ourselves in harm's way by opening ourselves up to those really volatile situations," Mara Logan said.

Mara Logan, a University of Michigan student, previously worked for the aquatic center. She now works as mask ambassadors team member.

Many students worked for the center's aquatic team but couldn't due to the COVID-19 measures. Instead, they were recruited to help the city adapt to the pandemic.

"We are like a family. We truly, you know, do so much with each other," Careathers said. "And it was easy to pick something like this up because you got to spend time ... get out and really talk to people when we had been stuck inside for so long."

Brenden Watters and Luke Frawley, both Lansing Community College students, previously worked for the aquatic center before joining the mask program.

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They have not had negative experiences with community members. Frawley said it feels good to get to know the community.

Watters said he wants locals to feel welcome approaching the ambassadors' tent.

"Just don't be afraid to come up ... if you just need a mask for friends or just need an extra one to have in your car, just come up and take one," Watters said.

The Downtown Development Authority funds the program and provides employees with a uniform, hand warmers and other equipment.

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The mask ambassadors hand out masks downtown Wednesday to Saturday from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. as long as weather allows.

"Anybody can come up to us (and) ask us some questions," Careathers said. "We're there to have a positive interaction and we want people walking away knowing we're here to help."

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