At United Church of Christ-related Retirement Housing Foundation, based in Long Beach, Calif., Judy A. Shaw, director of service coordination, had a problem: how to develop a program so that residents of RHF communities across 29 states could give to others in their local areas.

“I was looking for a way for residents to give back that wouldn’t cost them any money: they have time and talent, but no money to donate to community needs,” says Shaw.

Her solution was Project H.A.N.D.S. ® (Helping Angels National Donated Support). Founded in 2004, the program operates on the premise that everyone can help others in need.

The operation is simple. Shaw coordinates Project H.A.N.D.S., administering donated funds and tracking participation. Once residents of an RHF community decide to participate, Shaw sends a check to cover the cost of their supplies. “The residents decide what they want to do,” she says.

Some communities knit, crochet, sew or quilt, donating blankets, sweaters, scarves, and other items to local agencies and nonprofits. Other communities make personal tote bags filled with toiletries and school supplies, mats for homeless shelters, or knot blankets. One even donated vegetables grown in its garden to a local shelter. The possibilities are limitless, and each RHF community stamps the project with its own style and personality.

The efforts make a difference. “Last year, our residents donated more than 24,000 items to individual community agencies and nonprofits throughout the nation,” says Shaw. “The best part of the program is the residents’ pride in their work and their skills. They are excited to give to others who are in need. The residents know that these people need what they lovingly create.”

“Many of our residents have volunteered and given to others all of their lives, and it is essential that they continue to give,” Shaw adds. Through Project H.A.N.D.S., residents give back to their community as part of a group, as well as individually, which “instills a sense of pride in their group, where they live, and in themselves.”

“Any resident can become a part of Project H.A.N.D.S. –– even if they just come down and join in the camaraderie, and assist with snacks and boxing the items,” says Shaw. “Giving as a group is fun for the participants.”

Some RHF communities have partnered with other local groups, who want to help the Project H.A.N.D.S. effort. Neighbors, local church members, scouting troops –– as well as family and friends of residents –– often participate in what becomes an intergenerational effort.

An added bonus of the nationwide program is the relationships that have developed among community residents who might have had little contact with each other before Project H.A.N.D.S., due to language or cultural differences. “The commonality of their talent brings them together,” says Shaw. “They teach each other different stitches and skills using gestures and laughter.

“They discover the differences are superficial, and that we have more in common than we realized before.”

Retirement Housing Foundation, a CHHSM-member ministry, was founded in 1961 by two United Church of Christ clergy and a layperson with a vision of providing quality housing and services for seniors. Find an RHF community near you.