Six sustainable business majors in this year’s Sustainable Business Innovations Lab were not sure what to expect when they learned that once a week for eight weeks they would be visiting Beacon Hill at Eastgate, a Grand Rapids senior living community, to act as consultants on sustainability. They quickly found that the residents involved with the Environmental Action Group  (EAG) at Beacon Hill were as energized as the students to pursue sustainable practices and a better future for the planet. Not only did the students produce a portfolio of recommendations that were beneficial to the environment and cost-saving for Beacon Hill, but they also found joy in the relationships they built across generational lines and between communities.

The project began over lunch between Professor Kendra Wills, an adjunct professor at Aquinas who taught this year’s Innovations Lab, and her former colleague Carol Townsend, a resident of Beacon Hill and retired Community Development Educator with Michigan State University Extension. Kendra mentioned that she was looking for a project for the sustainable business majors to work on during the course. Townsend, a member of the EAG at Beacon Hill, suggested the students work with the committee. With Beacon Hill within walking distance of the Aquinas College campus, the collaboration seemed meant to be.

As their first objective, the students and residents on the EAG needed to decide where to focus their limited time.

Pond surrounded by plants and stones with Beacon hill, a 3 story building in the background“It can be overwhelming because there’s so much you can do,” said senior sustainable business major Aiden Donnelly. “You don’t know where to start and it kills your motivation all at once. So that’s why we had the idea of asking them to vote on what issues they wanted us to work on.”

However, the residents supplied a list of suggestions that required a series of votes to narrow it down to six areas of focus: water management; pesticide usage; lawn maintenance; native plants, birds, and pollinators; energy use; and funding resources. With that, the students were off to researching. They would take turns leading the meeting and creating agendas that were then verified with group  leaders. Each week they took down questions from the residents and returned with relevant research.

While the students gained valuable experience in their field, the residents were delighted to have both the insight and company of the students.

“By showing up and meeting with us, they send us the message that we’re worth their time. It’s a very affirming message,” said Barry Johnson, a Beacon Hill resident and member of the EAG. “And there’s the assumption that it’s possible that we could do something to impact the future.”

“They were so grateful,” said senior sustainable business major, Ella Goodman. “They would say that every week. It’s so refreshing having young people around here.” 

Residents fill rows of seats at a presentation by Aquinas students who stand in front of a projector screenWord spread across the community as the weeks continued. “It was just kind of contagious,” said Townsend. “The residents who were attending were really uplifted, and they talked to their friends and neighbors.”

As their final presentation approached, the students and committee members considered how to market the event to residents. While climate change is a pressing matter for everyone, members of younger generations will experience significantly more of its impact than older generations on average. Together, they found an effective angle: the possibility of a better future for others.

“A lot of them want to make the world better for their grandchildren,” said junior sustainable business major Jaydin Johnson. “They said this isn’t really for us. This isn’t about me. This is about my kids, my grandkids, my great-grandkids.”

The marketing worked. When the day of the presentation arrived, around 90 residents attended, nearly a third of the total community. The students each presented on different topics including rain gardens, the reintroduction of native species, organic fertilizers, water use reduction, energy use reduction, and sources of funding like the Green Revolving Fund, which is used at Aquinas College. Recommendations included actions that would require collaboration with administration at Beacon Hill and individual actions that residents could implement in their daily lives.

“One woman told me she went back to her apartment and immediately unplugged the coffee pot that she only uses on weekends,” said Townsend. “So she’s going to keep the coffee pot unplugged during the week. It really did raise awareness with people.”

Paved pathways through a garden with white trellises, black benches, and a small stone fountain. Apartments with balconies in the background.uilding in the background.Bill Foley, chair of the Sustainable Business department at Aquinas College, attended the presentation and was delighted with the outcomes of the course, which he said felt like a hired consulting team’s presentation. “Aquinas is a special place, and this sustainability program is a place where you can really connect with the community,” he said. “It’s so tied into our Dominican Values and a great example of how a creative group of students can live out their learning.”

Beacon Hill CEO Jeff Huegli was also glad to see the project’s success: “Beacon Hill is pleased to see members of its resident community actively engaged with this group of Aquinas students. Our organization has long embraced opportunities for collaborative learning with internal and externally aligned community members. We are encouraged by the efforts of those who are motivated to find sustainable ways for improving the lives of our neighbors and those served here. This type of project provides a terrific opportunity for these two groups to leverage their collective interests for the betterment of the greater community as well as our environment.”

With the course complete, Beacon Hill now has the opportunity to work toward the recommendations for a more sustainable community. The intergenerational project certainly raised awareness among residents at Beacon Hill that at any age we can make small changes that allow us to tread lighter on our delicate and precious Earth in the pursuit of a better future.