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College of Media students bring holiday cheer to elderly West Virginians

Two women put together holiday gift bags

What started out as an in-class assignment for one West Virginia University Reed College of Media student has extended beyond the classroom to a collaborative service project to benefit elderly West Virginians.

Public relations major Kristen Shaffer was tasked with writing a feature article for Assistant Professor Jennifer Harker’s public relations writing course, when she met Donald Reed, the executive director of the McDowell County Commission on Aging, a nonprofit community-based program dedicated to supporting senior and disabled residents.

During her interview with Reed, Shaffer learned of some of the struggles that seniors in southern West Virginia are currently facing. 

“Donald told me that many of the elderly and disabled residents do not receive presents and are alone during the holidays, especially with COVID-19 precautions this year,” Shaffer said. “It compelled me to take action. I wanted to do what I could to make their holiday special.”  

While Shaffer was making her own personal contribution to this cause, she decided to leverage the support of her peers to make an even bigger impact. She set up a GoFundMe account to purchase holiday gifts for clients of the McDowell County Commission on Aging and started to promote the fundraiser on her social accounts. She also provided information on sending them greeting cards. 

The service project gained even more traction when Harker suggested Shaffer partner with members of WVU’s Public Relations Student Society of America (PRSSA) chapter. Together, they were able to broaden the reach of the project, posting on PRSSA’s social media accounts and emailing updates to its numerous members. So far, they have raised $400 and mailed more than 75 holiday cards.  

"This type of project has such a great importance around the holidays, but especially this year,” said Hannah Belt, WVU PRSSA president. “Because of these difficult times, PRSSA was so grateful when Kristen reached out to us for this project. We wanted to do anything we could to bring positivity to others during the holiday season, and this was the perfect opportunity."

Fundraising by College of Media students allowed Reed’s staff from the Commission on Aging to buy, assemble and deliver gift bags to 74 McDowell County residents.   

“This is just another example of how WVU fulfills its land-grant mission of meeting the needs of the state,” said Reed. “This project helped rally both WVU students and local citizens to help make our seniors' Christmas brighter. It is a reminder of what special places WVU and West Virginia are.”