Visit Wellesley Public School at recess or lunchtime and you’ll likely find students cutting, looping and weaving milk bags.
The WE Team, affiliated with Free the Children, spent the previous school year collecting 5,000 milk bags.
Now, they’re turning them into 10 mats for people in other countries, providing a place to sleep rather than the ground. The project is part of MILKBAGSunlimited, a non-profit created by Toronto resident Angela Kesthely after the 2010 Haitian earthquake.
Wellesley PS teacher Keri Beu says the project is a great way to reuse milk bags – which are non-recyclable – and create something new.
“The community was bringing these in, in droves but we had to collect 5,000. So each family might use one or two milk bags a week. The students started telling family members and they started telling church organizations and community groups that our school’s collecting milk bags,” Beu said of how they collected that many.
When the students received the bags the first step in the process was to make sure they were clean and flatten them.
Buckets of milk bags and the loops of milk bags waiting to be weaved sit in one corner of the school’s library beside the frame they’re using to weave the mats on.
“After we get the milk bags the kids actually have to fold them and cut them to make the loops. So I’ve got cutters, I’ve got loopers, and I’ve got weavers. At one time we’ve got 30 kids working here every break a couple times a week to do it. They’re working very hard,” Beu said.
It takes about an hour and a half just to weave each bed and the students work on it during breaks at school.
Beu chose the initiative for the WE Team after reading about the organization and realizing with 760 students at the school it was definitely achievable.
“Since 2010 the organization has diverted 6.7 million bags from the landfill. I know that our students can see the benefits of not only the environment but knowing that there’s children in other parts of the world that sleep on the floor that is mud and damp and that we can make a bed for children,” Beu said.
She says the students have become engaged through the project and it’s interesting to watch them interact as they work, with students from Grades 6 to 8 working together on a common goal.
They chose to make 10 large mats rather than small ones because more than one child or even a family could sleep on the large mat.
“In addition, the organization will also transport the scraps to these other countries and the women in these communities actually make use these and they make pillows or they make bags or they make purses. They will use the milk bags as well to make income,” Beu explained.
Each WE Team is obligated to do a global action, and this fit the bill. Free the Children is also taking on an environmentally aware and environmentally conscious focus this year, so this also supports that.
With the frames and understanding of how to make the mats in place, it’s a project she sees continuing in the future at the school. She expects it will take them the full school year to make the 10 mats, which she recently learned have a dual purpose.
“The mats are also used for health professionals that are in the area if they don’t have a table for operations or surgeries, they actually will use the mats. I think that’s really interesting. We were just thinking beds for children and families. I was not even looking at the healthcare aspect,” Beu said.
Grade 8 student Heidi McDonald and Grade 6 students Bella Snyder and Ashley MacGillivray explain why it’s an important project for them to be a part of.
“It feels good to help others. I like working toward making a difference,” McDonald said.
“Each milk bag counts to a family and [it’s important] that they each get a mat, that we’re helping families,” Snyder chimed in.
“I really like how we’re helping the family and that just makes it a lot better for them,” MacGillivray added.
Snyder and MacGillivray say cleaning the bags has been the most difficult aspect, while McDonald has been challenged by the weaving.
“I’m finding the weaving difficult too, because we’re learning how to do it. This is our first mat and hopefully it works,” McDonald said.
They all agree it’s been a fun learning experience thus far.
Beu says she thinks the students have become more aware and appreciative of the standard of living they enjoy in Canada, compared to children of similar ages in other parts of the world.
The mats go to places such as Haiti, Greece, and Zambia.
They’ve learned they can make a difference in a unique way.
“They can have a direct impact that costs no money. They don’t have to fundraise, they don’t have to spend their money or get money, but they can actually be hands on physically making something that directly impacts a life,” Beu said.