'Banding' together

When COVID-19 began spreading last year, Ahwatukee resident Michelle Watson grew anxious about her Massachusetts family.

She, her husband Jeff and two sons began thinking about what could be done for those who were older, immune-compromised or had pre-existing conditions like asthma that might make them more susceptible to the coronavirus.

Last fall, the Watson’s two sons Jyles, 17 and Vaughn,14, joined with Keaton Dudley, 17, to do something about it.

They launched Protect-O-Band, a bright red silicone wristband with a white cross emblem – a universal symbol for medical awareness – and six bare feet to symbolize the recommended six feet of physical distancing guideline. 

The vivid yet subtle message: the wearer is medically vulnerable and needs to socially distance or requires extra consideration as they interact with others.

“People of any age could have medical problems, including plenty of kids who might have issues that we’re unaware of.  So the band, which we make in adult and youth sizes, could be a subtle reminder to other students to give space,” said Vaughn, an Altadena Middle School eighth grade student.

Since the launch, the teens have worked hard to ensure Protect-O-Band wristbands are available to area residents, including local school districts. 

“Everyone agreed that we wanted to help our community in one way or another during the pandemic as watching from the sidelines didn’t feel right,” said Jyles, a member of the Desert Vista High School National Honor Society and its volleyball and swim teams.

“The idea was inspired by the extreme growth of COVID cases as the year progressed, so we saw an opportunity to step in and help protect those more vulnerable,” he continued. “I think it’s safe to say that everyone has family and friends with medical conditions that put them at high risk as well.” 

Jyles created and manages their GoFundMe page, which has set a $5,000 goal set to help produce and distribute more Protect-O-Bands.

Keaton, also a Thunder National Honors Society and volleyball team member, focuses on distributing the Protect-O-Bands. 

“Our project has two main distribution targets: schools and medical offices,” Dudley explained. “We began ramping up distribution to schools in December just as many went fully online due to COVID-19. This was a temporary roadblock for the project because it made it more difficult to get Protect-O-Bands to the students’ families.” 

Dudley, vice-president of Desert Vista’s DECA chapter – a national association of business and marketing students – said, “We’re starting to distribute bands to Kyrene schools and we’ll be distributing bands on campus at Desert Vista in early February.”

“I’ve been thankful to have an enthusiastic response by Tempe Union leaders in education, and shared productive Zoom discussions to promote how Protect-O-Band might ease the transition to in-person learning,” he added.

Medical offices were a focus during the holidays.

“We’ve delivered more than 2,000 Protect-O-Bands to over 25 medical facilities and the two school districts. It’s been a real team effort to promote the project,” Dudley said. 

One of the Ahwatukee medical practices the teens reached is TLC Pediatrics, founded in 2004 by owner and physician, Dr. Diane Matsumoto.

“It’s wonderful to see these young men help raise awareness of the risks of COVID to those who have complex medical issues,” said Matsumoto. “We celebrate the contributions of these young men and others stepping outside themselves to help address this horrible pandemic.”

Each team member also helped spread the news of their venture by reaching out to family and friends personally and promoting Protect-O-Band on social media. 

Dudley set up an Instagram page, @protectoband, and designed the logo in hopes to spread the message of the wristbands.

Vaughn’s input that helped with the band’s graphic design. 

He said he is aware of medically-vulnerable peers who need to socially-distance – like those with asthma – but may be hesitant about expressing it.

“There are plenty of kids who could benefit from the Protect-O-Band because kids could also have issues that we are unaware of, and the band could be a subtle reminder to other students to give space,” said Vaughn, an avid mountain biker and new member of the Ahwatukee Lightning Lacrosse team.

“We made this to help protect people in a higher risk group because it has the potential to save lives.”

Since sharing her vision to help children and adults with higher risk, Michelle Watson has watched the three teens take responsibility for moving the project along.

“Everything we do starts at home, which then affects our immediate community, and out from there,” she said. 

“If we can help give a reminder to those around us that there are some folks who may have more going on medically than meets the eye, and that puts them at high risk for COVID-19, then certainly a Protect-O-Band could help them, and help our immediate community here in Ahwatukee.”

She said she’s proud of the boys taking ownership of the project, and working hard to see it through.

“The boys have taken this idea and flown with it,” she said. “It’s been a joy and a thrill to watch their dedication to the cause. Their hearts are in this.”

Besides the GoFundMe page, the teens are seeking help finding a sponsor willing to help with the costs for producing more.

Bonna Lippert of Fully Promoted West Valley donated the first 500 wristbands. The team said if it wasn’t for her largesse, it would have taken months to raise funds to get it off the ground. 

Another item on their wish list is to find medically-vulnerable individuals to use and endorse Protect-O-Band to help the team spread the value of the message of safety.

“It’s our sincere hope that these bands will be a visual reminder to others that the children and adults wearing them require physical distance, helping to slow the spread of COVID-19” the team expressed on their GoFundMe page message.

So far, the Protect-O-Bands are a localized project, but with time, the team hopes it might spread so as to help other medically-vulnerable adults and children.

“We hope to help those in need around the valley. If this somehow expands outside of our community, that would be great as we would like to help as many people as possible,” said Jyles.

 “However, we aren’t looking for this to grow into a large company but rather be a helping hand until everything is truly safe and back to normal.”

Added Dudley: “We welcome followers. The more people who know about the bands, the more effective they are.” 

As Kyrene School District employees began their free, rapid COVID testing last week (Thursday, 28) at their Emergency Command Center, a basket of the bright red silicone Protect-O-Bands and the flyer explaining the project were available for the taking. 

The teens hope that exposure will trickle down as staff educate students as to their availability. Some have already been delivered to individual schools.

The team also announced Protect-O-Band is now upon request at all seven Tempe Union High School District schools nurse’s offices for students and staff. 

Besides gofundme.com/f/protectoband and their Instagram account, the Protect-O-Band team can be reached at Protectoband@gmail.com.

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