CARSTAIRS – Many years ago while living in Calgary, Donna Aarsby’s heart ached for an answer to help frightened and desperate women seeking refuge at emergency shelters.
“I just wanted to do something, so I just phoned and asked what they need, and then they said, ‘always pajamas,” said Aarsby, who now lives on a farm between Carstairs and Cremona. “And so, I just then thought, ‘well, if I can just give two or three sets of pajamas, and I know 50 friends, I can collect a lot more than just the three I make.”
She then created a Facebook page called the Pj Project. Since those early days, Aarsby’s initiative has quietly, and without any wanted fanfare, been responsible for the Christmas-season delivery of thousands of donated pajamas to women's emergency shelters across the province.
“We tie a ribbon around every set of pajamas just to make it a little more special. We deliver them that way,” said Aarsby.
If there are any left over from the Christmas season, they are stored for the following year, or delivered to help those in desperate need, like the victims of the High River flood in 2013 and Fort McMurray wildfire in 2016.
“Everything is kind of magical. It has been a pretty good project,” said Aarsby modestly. “I am kind of a shy person, so I don’t really talk about it. We just kind of run it all quiet and get it done.”
Each year before the Christmas holidays, Aarsby begins the mission with a notice on her Facebook page, which now has a dedicated following of almost 800 members. The notice is a humble call for brand new unwrapped pajamas with their tags, adding there’s always a need for boys between the ages of eight and 14, and women sized XXL and larger. There’s also a request for slippers, robes, socks, toothbrushes and toothpaste.
Aarsby said this year the project started a month earlier than usual, and everybody “got right on board, right on task.” She estimates that up to 200 people from her group can be involved in the annual project - making deliveries, gathering from drop spots, collecting at businesses and helping with packaging.
“There’s a lot of wheels in motion but it seems to work out. It’s actually amazing how it runs itself. It is certainly bigger than me,” said Aarsby.
The Pj Project now has drop spots in about 20 locations across the province, from Grande Prairie, to Edmonton, Calgary, Lethbridge, Medicine Hat, and at many smaller rural communities in between. These now include Olds, Didsbury, Sundre, Carstairs and Cremona.
“We get as many out as are needed throughout the province,” said Aarsby. “I don’t think there are many (shelters) we have missed.”
This year, for the first time, Innisfail is a drop spot for the Pj Project. Dale Dunham, co-owner of The Coffee Cottage, said he signed on to the project about a month ago, and as of last week more than 60 pajamas have been dropped off, along with other items to help the cause.
“As always Innisfail steps up to help out,” said Dunham.
Aarsby estimated 500 new pajamas have already been committed to the project for this Christmas, and she has not yet even received any pyjamas from the drop spots.
“We are far surpassing what we have ever done before,” she said. “We have pyjamas everywhere.”
Aarsby said this year the collection date is around Nov. 15 with all pajamas delivered to shelters by about Dec. 1. She will soon put out a call-out that pajama deliveries need to be made.
“That just happens by magic too. I just say, ‘who is going to Medicine Hat? Who is going to Lethbridge?And somebody just takes it up, and off they go and deliver,” she said. “They are so happy. They just love to drop them off.”
Aarsby said this year she’s been working with Alberta Health Services to help smaller shelters from more rural communities.
“I would like to provide to some of the smaller towns and shelters we’ve never touched,” she said. “We are reaching out and would love for a shelter to reach out to us.”