Nine-year-old Mateo Alcorta blinked shyly behind his mask at the cameras, reporters, and doctors who gathered around him outside University Hospital on Friday to thank him for sewing and donating 80 masks to the hospital’s pediatric transplant unit. 

The masks are small, made especially to fit the faces of children, and each one was donated along with a small teddy bear. Mateo said he wanted to give pediatric transplant patients two gifts, one practical and one comforting.

 “The reason why I want to give them face masks is so that they won’t get killed by the coronavirus, and also give them some teddy bears so they won’t be scared of the coronavirus,” he said.

Wearing an oversized shirt and a bright red knitted cap, the soft-spoken third grader seemed unsure how to handle all the attention from the smiling adults.

“He’s always asking me why people are giving him so much attention, why do people think he is so special just for doing the right thing,” said Elizabeth Salinas, Mateo’s mother.

Hospital staff, including administrators, showed up to receive the donations and recognized Mateo’s generosity with a certificate and a gift bag. 

Dr. Daniel Ranch, a pediatric nephrologist who works with transplant patients at University Hospital, was there to welcome Mateo’s donation.

“I’m really proud of this guy,” Ranch said.

Ranch said transplant patients will be immunosuppressed for the rest of their lives because of the anti-rejection medicine they have to take and would have to wear masks immediately after a transplant even without the threat of COVID-19.

University Hospital’s transplant program was put on hold in March when coronavirus cases were beginning to climb, as the operations were considered too risky at that point, Ranch said. Transplant surgeries started again about a week ago with 15 pediatric patients awaiting new organs.

Ranch said masks cannot always protect vulnerable populations from all diseases, which is why asking the rest of the population to wear masks may be the best protection for those who are immunosuppressed.

“We believe it helps overall, because the more we can decrease possible transmission of the virus in the community, the faster it’s going to go away,” Ranch said. 

Mateo has been making masks and donating them since February when his mom taught him how to use the sewing machine. Friends who knew about his mask-making skills recently tagged him in a post on Facebook about how immunosuppressed children in particular need masks to protect them, and he immediately decided he wanted to make masks for transplant patients. 

Mateo said it only took him a day and a half to make all 80 masks for the transplant unit. Salinas said the idea to donate and all the hands-on work was done entirely by her son, and that she and his dad only provided the supplies.

“Me and his father are really proud. We’re just amazed by how old he is and he’s willing to do this,” Salinas said. “You can see people who are selling [masks] for large amounts of money, and here we have a child, [saying], ‘No, I’m not gonna charge you nothing. It’s for free. How many do you need?’”

Salinas said Mateo, a student at Jimmy L. Elrod Elementary School, gets his schoolwork done in the morning and then gets to work on the masks. So far he has sent masks to hospitals and friends in places as far away as the United Kingdom, Canada, and Singapore, and plans to keep making more masks and sending them to whoever needs them, Salinas said.

Salinas said Mateo has always had a generous heart and concern for others, and before he began making masks, he raised money to buy teddy bears to donate to children’s shelters.

“The only thing we can say is he has his great-grandfather’s heart, who passed away when I was in high school,” Salinas said. “My grandfather was exactly like him. He donated, he did charity work, he volunteered. He reminds us exactly of my grandfather.”

Although Salinas said she and Mateo’s dad have provided him with the mask-making material he needs so far, someone recently donated fabric to Mateo, and she said they wouldn’t turn down more donations.

To be part of Alcorta’s mask-making mission, people can get in touch with the family through his Facebook page.

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Jennifer Norris

Jennifer Norris has been working in journalism since 2005. She's a native Texan, but a new San Antonian who is excited to get to know the city.