Meet the designer who's building free COVID-19 shields for shopkeepers
Studio now an assembly line for the protective shields Rachelle LeBlanc makes for local businesses
Rachelle LeBlanc was converting a space in Toronto's Parkdale neighbourhood into a gallery and studio where she and her partners could work. Then the COVID-19 outbreak caused drastic changes to the 35-year-old designer's plans.
Renovations now on hold, the space has been reimagined as an assembly line for protective countertop shields that she offers free of charge to owners of small stores in her community.
The shields are designed to keep cashiers and customers safe as people pay for their purchases.
Using wood and plexiglass, LeBlanc designed a protective shield she donates to corner stores, small grocers and other local shops.
"I shop at small bodegas and grocery stores, and I witnessed that there weren't the same safeguards as at big grocers," LeBlanc says.
"So I started making these and giving them away."
She builds the shields using materials donated by local businesses, and purchased through a GoFundMe campaign.
The design is simple, efficient and accessible online to anyone who wants to replicate it.
Parkdale store owner Geeta Singh received a protective shield after one of her regular customers contacted LeBlanc on social media.
"We appreciate what they have done for us," Singh says.
"It's a good form of protection. She did not charge us for it — we are very grateful for what they are doing for the neighbourhood."
LeBlanc came up with the idea for the shields when she saw that Superframe, a Toronto framing business, was offering plexiglass online for free.
"I started thinking, 'how can I use that?' It all kind of came together."
Other local businesses soon started offering materials and labour free of charge.
The plexiglass and wooden parts used in each shield are cut by local businesses.
LeBlanc now spends most of her time trying to meet the demand, assembling the parts into finished shields and delivering them with the help of her studio partners, friends and contacts in the design community.
In multicultural Parkdale, many of the small shops are owned and operated by families. The local corner stores and small grocers provide basic necessities like food and essential supplies to residents.
LeBlanc says that she's noticed many acts of kindness everywhere she goes in the neighbourhood.
"I'm really inspired and impressed at the gestures between different parts of the community," she says. ''Some restaurants have taken on feeding their neighbours, and these little grocery stores are giving food away."
LeBlanc says the need to protect people in her community was important to her. She says the shields offer more than a physical barrier between cashiers and customers, they're also a reminder to people to practice physical distancing.
"When people see a barrier like that, they understand that there's a person there, and that they need to be more mindful about personal space in places that do not allow for personal space," Leblanc says.
"The staff feels safer, because they're not in contact with the clients," says a pharmacy owner on Roncesvalles Ave. in Toronto.
"We're scared but what can we do?," adds another store owner. "We're here and we gotta do what we have to do. We're doing what we can to protect ourselves and our customers."
Communication has been an issue throughout this crisis, with language sometimes creating a barrier. Some store owners say they did not know how to ask for help by themselves.
In some cases, LeBlanc was contacted directly by the children of shop owners through social media and asked to build them a shield.
"Kids reached out, because their parents are elderly and running these stores alone," she says.
Other shops, like this one in Koreatown, have come up with their own makeshift solutions.
"It's nice to see that this effort has been made by many people to create a higher level of safety," LeBlanc says.
As of now, LeBlanc's initiative has built and delivered 20 units to local shops. They're planning to build 100 more through the fundraising campaign.
"I think that the more we take care of the person next to us and across the street, the better off we're gonna be," LeBlanc says, about what drives her and the volunteers working with her. "It's the thing we should be concentrating on the most."
LeBlanc adds that her shields are just one of the things people can do to help others around them right now.
"Look at what your skills are and be creative. This is such an amazing opportunity for innovation and creativity."
Watch The National's feature about Rachelle LeBlanc:
All photography by Pierre-Olivier Bernatchez/CBC