For the past month, Fort Walton Beach resident Taylor Kennedy has been on a mission to make sure people are wearing masks.
She’s been a regular at Okaloosa County Commissioner meetings advocating for mask mandates, writing letters and sharing information to nearly 400 members in her community action Facebook group.
But after some “pretty combative” conversations with local politicians, Kennedy has come up with a new approach to encourage mask wearing. It’s called Mask Catchers. The initiative is quite simple — she rewards random mask wearers out in the community with gift cards to local businesses. She’s given away dozens of giftcards in just two weeks.
“They’re having this inconvenience but they’re doing it because they feel it’s the right thing to do,” said Kennedy. “I’d rather just thank them and do something kind for them and tell them ‘thank you, keep doing that; we’ll get through this’ than have these outbursts against people.”
Kennedy purchased some of the first gift cards with cash donated by a humanitarian aid worker in South Florida. Then, she started to reach out to businesses, like Tijuana Flats, that have required masks, as a way to pay it forward.
“At least, in my opinion, it lets the public know where to spend your money,” she said. “Where to shop, where to dine — where you’re safest.”
When she’s out in public, she keeps a stack of gift cards handy. They all come with a little card that says “Get caught and win” with the Mask Catchers Facebook page on it. She shares pictures of those who get “caught” on the Mask Catchers Facebook page.
Kennedy admits it’s a little awkward to walk up to strangers, but she’s usually met with gratitude.
“Who doesn’t want a gift card?” she said.
Last week, outside the CEFCO gas station near her home, Kennedy stopped a young man, Brandon, who was wearing his mask.
“Hey, I wanted to thank you for putting your mask on,” she said as she handed him the gift card.
Brandon said he wears his mask because his of grandmother, who recently died of COVID-19, and for his underlying health issues.
“I don’t want to take the chance,” he said.
Kennedy became a mask advocate after the death of 26-year-old Desi’rae Wysocki-McIntosh, who worked at a Tom Thumb gas station near her home. In early July, Kennedy was in the store when she noticed Desi’rae was feeling ill and experiencing shortness of breath. She told Kennedy she couldn’t find anyone to cover her shift and she couldn’t afford to lose her job.
“I just kind of realized — I was always wearing a mask when I went in there, but most people weren’t — and it was kind of odd to me, it’s such a small (indoor) space,” Kennedy said.
Kennedy didn’t know Desi beyond the occasional small talk when she’d go to the station for her Red Bulls, but now she’s one of her biggest cheerleaders. Six years ago, Kennedy lost her young daughter and through that tragedy, she tries to spread kindness in her daughter's honor.
“It’s been something that has driven me to live through this idea of the kind of person I would want her to become,” she said.
The effect of Mask Catchers is slowing spreading. Kennedy said one recipient was wearing a mask as she handed out free school supplies outside a church in Shalimar. She was so excited she told Kennedy “I cannot wait to do this.”
Kennedy said she has “mask ambassadors” in Niceville and Crestview. She’s also been contacted by a Pensacola couple who makes and delivers masks to high-risk or low-income individuals who want to be a part of the mission. Even one third-grader wants to participate.
“One mom reached out to me and said her daughter wanted to be a Mask Catcher, so I set them up with gift cards and they’ll be handing them out when school starts.”
Even Okaloosa County staff has offered to donate toward marketing and advertising efforts.
Considering where she started last month, Kennedy said she’s pleased to have found a happy medium.
“It’s nice to change the focus and not feel so defeated all the time by the negative,” she added. “This is a way to tell our community that we care and we’re grateful for the people that are making that sacrifice.”