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Hand sanitizer needed across region: These Port Arthur area companies jumped in to help

EcoWerks, a large recycling company in Port Arthur, has temporarily changed its production line from wastewater testing to mass-producing a nationwide necessity — hand sanitizer.

CEO of EcoWerks, Michael Laws, said making the decision to switch was an easy one.

“We wanted to try and find something that made a difference,” he said. “We looked around and the big thing that we saw, because we are in a rural area, is we weren’t getting any supplies.

The hands of EcoWerks CEO Michael Laws pour the first batch of hand sanitizer Tuesday. (Cassandra Jenkins/The News)

“National supplies are being prioritized to bigger cities, and a lot of our medical front line people and first responders have to deal without any hand sanitizer. Making hand sanitizer was something we felt we could do professionally with our infrastructure and skill set. So, we got to work.”

Employees of EcoWerks began the assembly–line process Monday, producing around 750 gallons of FDA approved hand sanitizer in less than a day.

Forklift operators lift a tank of isopropyl alcohol to store in the warehouse for hand sanitizer production. (Cassandra Jenkins/The News)

The first batch of finished product shipped today. It’s destination? First responders.

“We wanted to do (this process) on a scale large enough to make a real difference, because if our community fails, we fail,” he said. “We’ve been blessed in our history here, so this investment back into the community is a ‘thank you.’”

Charles Miller, lead mechanic and operator at EcoWerks, weighs the isopropyl alcohol in coordination with the FDA and WHO guidelines. (Cassandra Jenkins/The News)

The donated products will land in the hands of police chiefs, fire departments, ER rooms, retirement homes and medical centers across Jefferson, Hardin and Orange Counties — free of charge.

“Free means there is no barrier to distribution or purchasing or big cities getting it over small cities because they have more money,” Laws said. “The police departments, the fire departments, the medical clinics, daycares, high point of contact facilities, people that are important to society, don’t have access to (hand sanitizer). You can’t buy it. It’s not available.

EcoWerks maintenance coordinator Catherine Fraino puts on gloves and a respirator  mask. (Cassandra Jenkins/The News)

“These people are doing a job they have to do to maintain civil order and protect people, but they don’t have all the resources they should have to protect themselves. So we didn’t want to wait for a purchase system, we just wanted to get it into hands.”

That’s when Laws began calling in favors.

“We called local businesses to help support us, put together a team, a plan, materials on the ground and we got started,” he said. “This has been a 0-100, all-hands on deck project.”

EcoWerks maintenance coordinator Catherine Fraino puts on a respirator mask Tuesday in the warehouse as she prepares to prep the isopropyl alcohol. (Cassandra Jenkins/The News)

Gerard Drago, owner of West End Hardware, provided all stainless steel piping, plastic hoses and other material. Joy Baker, president of Bluebonnet Petrochemicals Solutions, sourced most chemicals provided at a discount. Bluebonnet also provided technical and analytical support. TAS provided transportation to meet tight timelines. Donovan Weldon, CNI Oil owner, and many other companies, stepped in as well.

“It’s a beautiful thing that people all around the community are wanting to do this,” Laws said. “As a company, too, right now we are guaranteeing our people 40 hours, but we have a lot of people that clock out and keep working, donating to this project — it’s a really beautiful thing.”

Laws said the employee response to change was phenomenal.

Jessica Seagraves, EcoWerks cleaning technician, labels hundreds of empty bottles Tuesday during the company’s first massive hand sanitizer production day. (Cassandra Jenkins/The News)

“None of us have done this before, all of this is brand new,” he said. “I got us started, but they’ve kept us going. Everyone that gets here jumps on it, they want to help. People want to help.”

EcoWerks’ maintenance coordinator Catherine Fraino, a Venzuelan refuge, was one of the very first on board.

“What’s happening right here, right now, is every day in my country,” Fraino said. “You can’t find toilet paper, sanitizer, nothing to clean with, even the food is hard to find. So when I saw all of this going on with this pandemic, I told my boss ‘it’s going to turn into my country and I don’t want that.’”

Fraino said the only way to keep the United States from falling into disrepair, similar to her home country, is through selflessness.

Charles Miller, lead mechanic and operator at EcoWerks, pours a test batch of mixed hand sanitizer during the first day of production. (Cassandra Jenkins/The News)

“The big problem (in Venezuela) is people started to live for themselves, so if we don’t start helping each other here, now, it’s going to be bad,” she said. “I told (Laws) if we have the possibility to help, to make a change, I wanted in.

“I know how important it is to be different, and in this country we can do it — that’s the big difference. I want to be in. I want to help. I know how important it is and if we contain our community, and help our community, we are going to stop this. It’s the only thing we can do.”

Moments after Fraino left the room, Laws received a call from an emergency room in Pasadena, they ran out of hand sanitizer.

He is eager to begin distribution.

“That’s how real this is,” he said. “We’ve been desperate to get this done, because we are viewing it every day we don’t have it out that somebody can get sick or even die. We are ready to get it into the hands that need it most.”

Volunteers interested in helping bottle, pack or deliver hand sanitizer can reach out to Mike Laws on EcoWerks Facebook page.