It was a conversation about passing things on to the next generation that sparked the idea for Shelley Du. After a semester working with Operation Friendship, a local organization that works with homeless and at-risk seniors, Du was in search of a project to continue her connection with the group. Talking to a friend about her volunteer work, Du remembered a favourite childhood book: Something from Nothing by Phoebe Gilman, a story of a grandfather who makes a blanket for his grandchild, then turns the worn-out blanket into a jacket, a tie, a handkerchief and finally, a button.
She came up with the idea of asking the seniors to paint squares of fabric to be sewn into quilts by volunteers. To give back to the community, the quilts would then be donated to Little Warriors, a charitable organization for awareness, prevention and treatment of child sexual abuse. The idea was a winner, and not just with the seniors. Du received the Boardwalk Rental Communities Learning and Change Award, which provided $10,000 in funding to bring the idea to fruition.
“Every week I had seniors telling me how amazing this project was and asking me to bring it to other organizations.”
Du’s connection with Operation Friendship began through the Community Service-Learning (CSL) program in the Faculty of Arts. CSL allows students to volunteer with local community groups within the context of select courses from across a variety of faculties. Du chose to participate as part of a psychology course on adult development and aging, taught by Department of Psychology professor Tiana Rust in the fall of 2014. She selected Operation Friendship from a list of approved organizations for the course and after receiving ethics approval, completed 20 hours of volunteer work and submitted reflections linking course materials to her experiences every week.
Du dropped by Sunday afternoons to help serve food, play board games and visit with the seniors. She found the experience so rewarding that she had already decided to continue volunteering with the group on her own time when she heard of the opportunity from Boardwalk.
The quilt squares project — dubbed “Something from Nothing” after the children’s book — was a hit. By the end of the summer, the seniors had made enough squares for six blankets, which were presented to representatives from Little Warriors at a wrap up party Du planned and organized. And the project had some unforeseen benefits. A regular participant named Charles became so involved that he painted 150 squares on his own time. “He did some amazing pieces and really became known for his paintings,” says Du. “It was so unexpected that someone would love the project so much that he would develop it into a hobby.” Meanwhile Du, who had no knowledge of quilting or sewing before the initiative, also developed some new skills along the way, along with such transferable skills as project management and budgeting.
But the larger benefits were seen in the Operation Friendship community itself. A survey after the project ended found that more than half of the seniors would be keen to do it again. “Every week I had seniors telling me how amazing this project was and asking me to bring it to other organizations,” says Du. “I got lots of positive feedback and support from them.”
In fact, the experience may have also helped her find her own calling. Du is now planning to go back to school in 2016 to pursue a degree in social work. “It was so rewarding to learn about this group and be able to do something for them. It inspired me to pursue a career that works with this population.”