Canadian military veteran Kelsi Sheren knows all too well what it means to be fighting on the frontlines during a crisis. That’s why she’s redeployed herself to a new form of action. As the designing force behind the Brass & Unity unisex jewellery brand, she’s tapped her packaging plant in China to manufacture desperately needed hospital-grade masks and PPE wear—millions of items every day—for North American COVID-19 heroes.
First, some background: Sheren was just 18 when she was sent to Afghanistan as an artillery gunner, and when an injury forced her to leave in 2011, she spent years dealing with the fallout of PTSD and a society that didn’t fully appreciate what she’d sacrificed.
“You come home from overseas to a broken system—I was literally spit on,” she says from her White Rock headquarters. “It was the idea that you go to fight for your country and people don’t really care.”
Now the COVID-19 crisis has people celebrating the importance of those who risk their own health to serve on the frontlines—from police to hospital workers.
“It’s obviously amazing to watch our society come together at a time when the frontline workers are most needed,” she says. “I just wish this is how our veterans and police officers were always treated, in a way.”
In 2016, when Sheren launched Brass & Unity, it was as much about art therapy as it was about turning something ugly into something beautiful: she incorporates brass bullet casings with materials like black-onyx beads, Swarovski crystals, and even diamonds to make striking bracelets, rings, and necklaces. From the get-go, 20 percent of net profits has gone to rehabilitation, prosthetic, and mental-health programs for veterans.
The brand now sells globally, to more than 200 stores. And Sheren, who was just in China on business in January, knew that one of her massive manufacturers there could start meeting the needs of frontline workers. A first shipment of 182,000 masks has already arrived in Toronto, and she now has the Guangzhou facility filling private orders coming in from hospitals across North America, at cost.
In addition, Sheren has launched a Masks for All GoFundMe campaign to raise $15,000, enough to give about 50,000 to 100,000 PPE to workers like grocery clerks; delivery people; taxi, bus, and ride-hailing drivers; restaurant servers and cooks; and health-care providers. “We can produce, but we need the funds,” she explains. All donors of $25 or more will receive a free Active bracelet from B&U—a flexible silicone version of the regular style. (Frontline workers can sign up directly to receive the PPE at the Brass & Unity PPE Program.)
“I said, ‘We should do something to benefit others,’ and we had a resource: one of the largest packaging factories in Asia that’s producing masks now,” Sheren says. Though she worries about how those struggling with mental health are coping, she hopes something good can come out of the pandemic: “You should focus on mental health and do the best you can either to help out by volunteering or making homemade masks. The whole world has stopped for you to say, ‘Hey, am I doing enough for people?’ We can’t live in a society where everything is ‘me’ anymore; it has to be ‘we’ now, and the longer this goes, the more we can get connected.”