Claremont Cares raises money promoting mask wearing

by Mick Rhodes |

The founders of Claremont Cares, Deborah Kekone and Valerie Martinez, share a not-so-secret habit: if they see one of the group’s signs looking a little droopy or needing adjustment, they stop and fix the sign up. Why? Because Claremont cares.

The two started Claremont Cares six weeks ago as a grassroots campaign to encourage people, in a friendly and positive manner, to wear a face covering. The main outreach so far has been the attractive blue and white signs that have been popping up all over town with the message, “Behind every mask is a person who cares.”

They might seem an unlikely pair to become newsmakers, Ms. Martinez owns the public relations firm VMA Communications, and Ms. Kekone works for VMA as a part time graphic designer. But when you begin to inquire a little more, they are the perfect people to make the campaign work. Ms. Martinez had already been working on COVID-19 informational campaigns for her clients, and Ms. Kekone has the know-how to create attractive and easy to read promotional materials.

Plus, they both are involved here in The City of Trees, with Ms. Kekone serving as the president of Claremont Educational Foundation and Ms. Martinez working on Corey Calaycay’s reelection committee.

The seed for what would become Claremont Cares started as Ms. Kekone kept hearing from business owners and many Claremont residents that they did not feel safe going out, particularly to the Village, because so many people were not wearing face coverings. She mentioned this to Ms. Martinez, who said she had been hearing the same kind of complaints. And so, from what Ms. Kekone describes as a workplace conversation, they hatched the idea for a way to help get the word out.

“I just kept hearing over and over again ‘I don’t understand why people aren’t wearing masks,’” Ms. Kekone said. Her friends felt frustrated by the arguments about the politics and the debate over whether the science behind masks was valid or not. “Don’t they understand? It’s not about politics—it’s about caring for other people,” she said.

The money for the first batch of 200 lawn signs came out of their own pockets. However, they now have a GoFundMe page that by mid-August had raised $3,400. The first signs were gone pretty quickly, so with the new funding they have printed 700 more, along with six banners which either have been, or soon will be hung in prominent locations throughout the city.

“It was kind of coming to a head,” Ms. Martinez said about the campaign’s beginnings. “I was talking to a couple of my older friends who were both saying ‘we are at this point in our lives where we need to be active, we need to be out but can’t leave the house and this is so stifling.’ I heard in their voices how restrictive and horrible this was and that was because some people decided that they don’t want to wear a mask.”

Neither had ever tried something like this before, but after calling Claremont’s elected officials, and the city’s retirement homes, they received plenty of encouragement.

“We just went for it,” Ms. Kekone said with a chuckle. “We ordered the first 200 signs up front before we had any pledges or money in the GoFundMe, just to try it and hope for the best. The signs flew off the shelves.”

The Kiwanis Club of Claremont, including Sonya Stump and Bob Fagg, has been helping with the distribution at Sunday’s farmers market and signs can be picked up at Claremont City Hall during regular hours. For anyone who is unable to leave the house, they have created a Facebook page where people can request to have a sign delivered.

“We’re asking our friends, neighbors, local businesses, service organizations, and public agencies to support this grassroots effort by liking/tagging our Claremont Cares Facebook page, post a sign, use a hashtag and contributing where you can to our Claremont Cares GoFundMe page to help offset the cost of printing signs and campaign materials. But most importantly: mask up!” the pair wrote on their Facebook page.

Non-compliance with the state and county face covering mandates is not exclusive to Claremont and many cities have struggled to find ways to encourage people to observe the rules. Last week Claremont joined a growing list of municipalities that have elected to impose fines on non-mask-wearing individuals.

To underscore the need for the ordinance, and the Claremont Cares campaign, during the length of the COURIER’s interview with Ms. Martinez and Ms. Kekone, four unmasked young men were using a picnic bench at Memorial Park as an impromptu exercise gym.

“The ordinance might not be ideal, but it became necessary because people don’t always think about other people and they don’t care about other people all of the time,” Ms. Kekone said.

“And that is the way it should be. There should be a good coalition or coordination between citizens and government. And this becomes the best of all worlds, where the community itself is elevating the issue and saying this is important to us, and government is saying we are going to create a rule so people are clear about the fact that this is a good thing to do,” Ms. Martinez said.

They have received substantial support from city officials, including Mayor Pro Tem Jennifer Stark, who has been distributing signs, and councilmemeber Corey Calaycay who delivered a batch of signs to Pilgrim Place and one to Claremont Manor.

The Claremont Cares campaign has received very little pushback, aside from the usual suspects on social media. “The whole point of the signs is about caring. Anyone who has something negative to say about the signs, that’s going to say more about them than anything else. Because it’s not about signs, it’s not about politics, it’s just about being a good human being and caring about the needs of other people,” Ms. Kekone said.

The pair said they intend to soldier on until the pandemic reaches the point when face coverings are no longer mandated by government or perhaps a larger segment of the population adopts mask wearing.

“The signs will stay up until we don’t need them any more,” Ms. Kekone said.





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