Business grad tackled pandemic isolation by creating connections — and sparking joy — for seniors and students

Inspired by her parents’ example and her experiences in the Peter Lougheed Leadership College, Samantha Gardner co-founded a thriving non-profit.

Samantha Gardner

Business graduate Samantha Gardner co-founded a non-profit organization called Sunshine Connected three years ago — dedicated to pairing younger people with seniors so both can learn from each other — while enrolled in the Peter Lougheed Leadership College certificate program. (Photo: John Ulan)

With parents who are much older than those of her peers, Samantha Gardner has had a unique perspective on the struggles and triumphs of aging.

In elementary school, she watched as they built new lives in Canada after immigrating from Dubai. Now in her 20s, she marvels at how they thrive despite the inevitable obstacles of growing older.

Inspired by their example, Gardner co-founded a non-profit organization called Sunshine Connected, which pairs university students with older counterparts so both can learn from each other. It was initially meant to address two problems created by the COVID-19 pandemic — the isolation of older adults and the lack of volunteer opportunities for students.

Samantha Gardner and her parents.

Gardner was inspired by her parents (pictured) to co-found Sunshine Connected, which pairs university students with seniors so both can learn from each other. (Photo: John Ulan)

Established three years ago, the non-profit has now completed three rounds of an online pilot project called Teach-n-Trade, a kind of pen-pal relationship that has participants gaining new skills while spending time with someone who shares their interests.

This year, Sunshine Connected will test a new program, delivered both in person and online, to help older adults learn about health literacy topics.

“I think there's room for a lot of innovation in programming for older adults,” says Gardner, who graduates today with a bachelor of commerce degree, focused on strategic and business technology management.

“The population is growing rapidly and will only continue to grow in the next 10 years. There's a lot of funding and support available to really make an impact.”

The World Health Organization says that between 2015 and 2050, the proportion of the world’s population aged 60 and over will nearly double, from 12 per cent to 22 per cent. Population projections for Alberta put the proportion of those aged 65 or older at 20 per cent by 2046. 

The idea for Sunshine Connected came to Gardner when she was enrolled in the leadership certificate at the U of A’s Peter Lougheed Leadership College. It was an inspiring two years, surrounded by students who all seemed hungry to go out into the world and affect change, she says.

“I really think I learned from the people, some of whom have become my best friends,” she says. “I learned from their drive — how they thought about things and were just so excited to do things.”

That’s when she started doing research on the needs of older adults.

To get Sunshine Connected off the ground, Gardner and leadership college classmate Jenna Mulji, also a U of A student, teamed up with Aminah Beg from Queen’s University.

They received funding from the Dunin-Deshpande Queen's Innovation Centre, designed to assist the growth of startups and small to medium-sized enterprises, as well as provide guidance on how to start an organization and create a viable product, says Gardner.

The program also connected them with Ontario’s Centre for Aging + Brain Health Innovation, which provided them with a $25,000 grant and helped them reach out to older adults directly through their network and advisory board.

Sunshine Connected pairs participants based on their interests, Gardner says.

“We try to create the best possible match and experience, because people want to take something away — they don't just want to chat. Results so far have been encouraging,” she says.

“The older adults felt a sense of pride and fulfilment, being able to share their wisdom accumulated over so many years. And the students, myself included, were really excited to learn and engage, because we obviously have things to share as well.”

For her role in creating Sunshine Connected, and for founding the Women in Leadership club at the U of A, Gardner won the national HSBC Women’s Entrepreneurial Leader award last year from Enactus Canada, Canada’s largest student leadership development organization.

Gardner is now dedicated to helping seniors in the future, whatever shape that might take.

She had been working at ATB as a technology product manager associate but has been accepted by Toronto’s Next 36, a competitive program that selects 36 entrepreneurial undergrads and recent grads from across the country to “build Canada’s next unicorn.” She will work full time for Next 36 on technology for caregivers.

“I hope to continue working in the age-tech space and creating solutions for the aging population,” says Gardner, “but I'm pretty open to see where the journey takes me.”