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Emphasizing sustainability one T-shirt at a time

  • Students work on cutting up and tying together shirts around a table
    7 Generations:  Students participating in the 7 Generations program work on turning unused T-shirts into bags.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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T-shirts are often discarded without much thought about where they’ll end up next. In some cases, they get tossed on a trash heap or in a musty storage unit.

Last week, William & Mary’s Office of Community Engagement had the help of incoming new students in the community service pre-orientation program, 7 Generations, to address that problem.

On the third floor of Blow Memorial Hall Aug. 22, dozens of new students in the program got to work cutting donated T-shirts from all over campus and the Williamsburg community and turning them into reusable bags.

{{youtube:medium:left|sNYT1_JD-Yo, Shirts to bags}}

Elizabeth Miller ’11, associate director of the Office of Community Engagement, initially sent out a call across the campus for 100 shirts. “We ended up receiving nearly 450,” she said. These bags echo this year’s theme for 7 Generations: sustainability.

The bags have since been donated to FISH, a local food pantry and donation center in Williamsburg. Instead of the typical paper or plastic bags FISH recently purchased, it will receive the hundreds of reusable, washable bags handmade by William & Mary students.

“They’re going to be passed out by the volunteers to people that are receiving food from the food pantry and be able to say to them ‘William & Mary students chose to create these and give these to you,’” said Torie Dunlap ’20, co-leader of one of the 7 Generations groups focused on economic sustainability. “It’s connecting our campus to the community that we are a part of, which I think is wonderful, even if it’s not a person-to-person connection.”

A student works on tying a shirt together to make a bag. (Photo by Stephen Salpukas)Sustainability is a major focus of 7 Generations and a crucial component of community service, said Erin McCluskey ’23, a freshman participating in the program.

“I think without sustainability, community service will just stop,” said McCluskey. “Without being sustainable, you can’t continue these programs. They’ll shut down. What benefits the community had from it will just cease, and that’s a really scary thing. If everything is gone, what happens to all of the people?”

This year’s 7 Generations program allowed new students to choose from one of three options focused on sustainability: social, economic, and environmental. Graduate student Torie Dunlap and Caitlyn Whitesell ’20 were both co-leaders for the economic group. Both of them commented on how all three components of sustainability matter in our community through service.

“Obviously the T-shirts aren’t going to the landfill; they’re not going to be thrown away,” said Whitesell. “By making it into a bag, which is something that could be really helpful, it can keep plastic bags from being used, and then also hopefully we’ll help people be able to more easily carry groceries than a plastic bag would.”

Shirts came from every part of campus, including the W&M School of Law, Campus Recreation and the Alumni Association, as well as from the Williamsburg community.

“I don’t know how they heard about it because I just sent (the request) out to campus,” said Miller.

Student work on transforming shirts into bags. (Photo by Stephen Salpukas)For students like McCluskey, 7 Generations not only offers incoming students a service project-oriented first-look at William & Mary, but it also allows them to become exposed to the campus and its surrounding community.

The Office of Community Engagement “made it easy to get involved because there’s so much to do in college,” she said.

In addition to educating the new students, 7 Generations also allowed the new students to connect over their love of serving, giving back, and becoming more connected to the community. McCluskey felt that firsthand.

“7 Generations seemed to be more what I wanted to do to get engaged with the community because I find that really important. Even though this isn’t where I’m from, it’s going to be my home for the next four years. I should get involved and meet the people here, and understand how they work or how things are here.”