A Nurse’s Plan to Save Coral Reefs by Making Masks

Laura Haythorn in her homemade whale shark mask

A radiation oncology nurse practitioner by day and an expert seamstress by night, Laura Waters has been working tirelessly since the start of COVID-19. As the pandemic spread earlier this year, Waters noticed the lack of masks that were available to the public and frontline workers. She worried about her friends, family, and coworkers not having appropriate protection, so after a 20-year hiatus, she pulled out her 1955 Singer Sewing Machine, nicknamed “the little Singer that could,” and started sewing masks. 

Laura Haythorn pictured in her handmade whale shark mask
Laura Waters in her handmade whale shark mask.

Fast forward a few months, and Waters, the one-woman-machine, has single-handedly sewn and sold 635 reusable face masks, donating 100% of the proceeds to her favorite wildlife conservation charities, the Coral Reef Alliance (CORAL) included. 

Waters has been an avid SCUBA diver since 2011. She is a Master Diver and an underwater photographer who has explored oceans far and wide, logging over 350 dives. She has experienced some of the most incredible underwater sites, from diving with manta rays in Hawai‘i, to swimming with sharks, playing with dolphins, and enjoying bountiful coral while diving off the Rangiroa atoll in French Polynesia. Waters recalls, “I have always been in the water, it is my happy place.”

Hayhtorn's Singer sewing machine with masks
Waters’ Singer sewing machine, “the little Singer that could.”

With such exploration, she has also witnessed first-hand the devastating effects of climate change, pollution, and overfishing on coral reefs. After years of dreaming and longing to visit the Great Barrier Reef, Waters was disappointed to find bleached coral as far as the eye could see. What was once an underwater rainforest of dreams, now looked like a nightmare, and Waters was inspired to help.

Even in her childhood, Waters had a passion for the ocean and for philanthropy. In third grade, she became so fascinated by sharks that she saved up all of her allowance money and donated it to marine researcher, Dr. Eugenie Clark, popularly known as “The Shark Lady.” Dr. Clark sent a signed photograph in return saying that she was inspired by Waters’ love for the ocean at such an early age.

Masks with different prints of animals and nature
Her masks feature wildlife and nature from all around the earth.

Outside of the water, Waters has gone on safaris in Africa, trekked through the Rwandan rainforest to see wild gorillas, visited threatened orangutans in Borneo, and climbed Mt Kilimanjaro. Holding nature close to her heart, her call to action was learning that conservation nonprofits were struggling in the face of COVID-19. Waters decided to donate all of the proceeds from selling her masks to CORAL and three other organizations, a total of $6,500 to help conserve nature. Each mask was designed with vibrant prints of different animals and nature-scapes from the ocean to the rainforest. 

Selecting CORAL as a recipient was a no-brainer: her love for the ocean and SCUBA diving drew her to protect coral reefs. CORAL’s mission to save coral reefs and inspire local communities and individuals to protect their coral ecosystems deeply resonated with Waters because, “this project was me, just one person, trying to make a difference. If you inspire one person, they can inspire another person…and that’s how it grows.”

Although Waters originally aimed to become a marine biologist, she found her true calling in medicine. Working at the Durham VA Medical Center in North Carolina has been an adjustment during COVID-19. Pre-COVID, she would see patients every day while running the prostate cancer clinic. Now, Waters has had to shift over to telehealth appointments, social distancing, and working from the basement of the hospital, which she covered with pictures of the ocean to keep herself happy.

Lots of masks lined up and ready to be sold
Masks lined up and ready to be shipped out.

Waters sees first-hand the importance of wearing masks to curb the spread of the virus and help the healthcare system in our country as the number of COVID-19 patients in her hospital continues to rise, and her colleagues rush to respond. She leveraged her knowledge of proper masking techniques from years of working in the medical field to create a unique design for comfort, practicality, and safety. Not to mention, she made each part of the mask sustainable, from the upcycled metal nose rod, to the recycled T-shirt material for the straps, and the zero waste, printed-on-demand fabric that supports independent artists.

Between working as a nurse, taking care of her family (dog included), organizing food drives, virtually hiking the Appalachian Trail, and sewing hundreds of masks, juggling her busy schedule has been difficult. Yet, Waters found peace in helping others. Making masks during this crazy time has brought her joy and hope: hope that the pandemic will end, that her loved ones will be safe, and that her work will help wildlife in dire need of a saving grace. Her favorite part of this whole experience has been seeing how many people are excited to wear masks and help charities, as it has revealed “the good in the world.” As a superwoman who not only saves people’s lives during work, nurse Waters protects people, animals, and the environment when she is off duty, and inspires others to follow. Waters is a living example that one person can make a difference. 

Close flyout widget area

Help save the world’s coral reefs