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Local kayak and paddle company pivots to making face shields for medical professionals

Lightning Kayaks is taking donations to help with the raw materials, employee pay and for shields they give free to hospitals that can't afford them.

MINNEAPOLIS — As we spend the days indoors, life before the coronavirus may be fading away into our memories. There' a lot of change happening daily. But the good news is that humans are good at adapting. Businesses are slowly doing the same.

"This time of year is our busiest time of year," Lightning Kayaks CEO Stuart Lee said. "As weather warms, and people want to get out, kayak, canoe, standup paddle -- normally our shop is buzzing."

But on Tuesday, Lee's shop on River Road in Minenapolis was accented by the sound of staples. Otherwise, pretty quiet. The sound came from his small team of employees, assembling thousands of face shields for medical workers in need.

"I got a call from my friend in Australia who owns a kayak accessory business, and he had switched production to making face shields," Lee said. "He said, 'I'm getting hundreds of reqeusts from the U.S., you should think about doing this.' I hung up and I started calling local suppliers that we get materials from to see if we can source the materials and sure enough, we could."

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From one sort of plastic to another, the pivot Lee's company had to make wasn't easy, but Lee said everyone is eager to answer this call for help.

"We started a campaign where for as little as five dollars, someone can donate a face shield to a healthcare worker," he said. "So if there is a healthcare worker that aren't getting this, and they need it-- just email us, call us, and we're shipping them out."

Once a manufacturer of fun and adventure, now onto work that is necessary.

"There's still a reward in that for you, you know you're making someone that is helping someone," he said. "Albeit, not what we started the business for, but it's a lot more important."

Everyone right now is dreaming of the day they can resume life as we knew it. But until then, the employees at Lightning Kayak are saving lives, one staple at a time.

"I hope that's coming soon, but we're gonna do this however long it takes," Lee said. "Until they tell us, alright we're good, everyone's caught up. the supply is there, so we're here. we're here to do it."

Lee explained that after some feedback from hospitals, he is now changing the shield assembly process. He said he is working to remove the staples entirely, and replace them with a plastic button so healthcare workers won't risk snagging their gloves on the staples.

Lee is selling the masks to hospitals if he can. However, he says if a hospital calls to let him know that they cannot afford the shields, he is making donations. He says the donations he is collecting from people are going into buying raw materials, paying his employees and shipping the masks. 

If you are interested in making a contribution, you can find the link here

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The state of Minnesota has set up a hotline for general questions about coronavirus at 651-201-3920 or 1-800-657-3903, available 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.