March 17, 2020

Lethbridge social work students build community, one ‘plarn’ sleeping mat at a time

Community-building projects include fundraising efforts to build packages for lower-income families

Helping neighbours feels like it’s part of the fabric of this province — a  feeling that aligns and resonates with Social Work, which is often called the "helping profession."

This winter, given the economic realities facing many Lethbridge families, Dr. Dora Tam, PhD, asked her students to think of a grassroots project that might make a big difference in their community.

  • Photo above: Social Work faculty members, from left, Beth Jones, Dora Tam, Jocelyn Chartrand and Sui Ming turn plastic bags into blankets as part of a student-led initiative. Faculty of Social Work photo

“It’s been difficult for many people in Lethbridge due to the economic downturn and budget cuts,” saysTam, who teaches at the Faculty of Social Work’s Lethbridge campus. “In addition, availability and accessibility of resources that address pressing social issues are being threatened.”

With this in mind, Tam challenged her Bachelor of Social Work students to create projects that could build community and make an impact in Lethbridge. So far, the results of the group projects have been inspiring.

Beds from Bags recycles plastic shopping bags

Beds from Bags is a project that creates plastic yarn — “plarn” — sleeping mats for people experiencing homelessness, who have to “sleep rough” in Lethbridge. Plarn is an ingenious way to recycle plastic shopping bags, diverting them from landfills while creating a valuable resource. The growing community group ingeniously weaves the shopping bags together creating a durable, weather-proof mat for those who have to sleep outdoors.

The project has really resonated with the Lethbridge community. The student group’s Facebook page was deluged with people wanting to help — offering to donate plastic bags, to come and join the students create plarn, or to crochet the sleeping mats.

“The community response has been very positive,” says Amy Cook, one of the student group leaders. “We have partnered with SAGE Clan and the Downtown Lethbridge Business Revitalization Zone to ensure the mats are distributed effectively and ethically. We have also partnered with G. S. Lakie Middle School where a teacher began a Plarn Club, where students get together for half an hour every Monday and Thursday. We went to join Plarn Club last week and there were about 20 kids there, all very excited about making plarn!”

The students also organize "plarn parties” with snacks and supplies provided, inviting fellow students, professors and community members to help them on their quest. They plan to create at least 35 sleeping mats, as they have had an estimate from the community organization SAGE Clan that around 30 people sleep rough in Lethbridge. The group has even extended their efforts beyond Lethbridge, creating collection centres in Claresholm, Medicine Hat, Fort Macleod, and Lethbridge.

Lethbridge K.I.D.S. group

KIDS group from left: Leah Ekubazgi, Danalee McQuitty, Christina Blake, Alicia Yetman, Janine Kerner

Faculty of Social Work

Kindness, inclusion, diversity, and support

Another of the student groups decided to focus their efforts on helping lower-income families meet their basic needs. Their initiative, K.I.D.S. Community Connection Program, stands for kindness, inclusion, diversity, and support. The five passionate students decided to lead a fundraising effort that could create packages that would include gift cards, vouchers for food, transportation, recreational activities and more.

“We are hoping the long-term impacts of this project will help reduce the harmful impact poverty has on developing children,” says group member Christina Blake. “There is so much evidence-based knowledge that adverse childhood experiences have lifelong consequences. We’re hoping to buffer that a little and provide positive experiences.”

This focus is why the packages contain more than just vouchers for basic needs (such as food or clothing.) There are also leisure activities (pools, recreation centres, etc.) included to help families relax and bond. The group launched an online fundraising campaign which will run until the end of March.

“Every donation, big or small, makes a difference in the lives of kids who need it the most,” says Blake.

The plan is to distribute the care packages through selected organizations and schools in the area to children from low-income households.

For her part, Tam is pleased to that the students seem to have really embraced the spirit of her challenge. “I think it’s really inspiring,” says Tam, reflecting on how the community has embraced the students’ efforts. “These student-led projects could be a start for more collaboration between our university and the community for community development and capacity building.”