Seniors take the runway in student-designed accessible outfits

Contact: Chris Hybels

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Dancing on the runway, seniors stole the show in student designed outfits during their holiday gala. In a cross-college collaboration, students from Western Michigan University's Merchandising Opportunities & Design Association (MODA) and Student Occupational Therapy Association (SOTA) came together to create outfits for seniors at the Ecumenical Senior Center (ESC). Custom made, each senior received an outfit that was accessible, formal and sustainable to wear during the center's fundraiser event on Dec. 2 at Ascension Borgess Hospital's Lawrence Education Center.

"Some of the seniors at ESC are self-conscious about their disabilities and are afraid of what others think about them," says Ally Wilson, president of MODA. "Expressing themselves through fashion is what makes them happy and we created something custom that they can feel confident in."

The Ecumenical Senior Center (ESC) is a welcoming hub in the Kalamazoo's Northside for individuals aged 60 and over, offering a diverse range of programs and services to enhance their quality of life at no cost. At the center, guests can participate in activities such as bible study, exercise, games, senior trips, volunteer opportunities, and classes. The center also provides guests with a breakfast and lunch program daily and distributes donations of food, hygiene, household items, equipment, books and other items.

The purpose of the holiday gala was to raise money for ESC's capital campaign. As part of the campaign, ESC aims to renovate the exterior and interior of their current location on N. Burdick Street. The center is also looking to add 10,000 square feet of new construction to more than double their programming. The expansion would be two stories and provide more accessible space for senior with disabilities. Additionally, the expansion would have a upgraded kitchen, fitness area, game room and rooftop patio garden area.

"We've been working on the capital campaign for about a year and a half, so we're hoping that we're getting closer to that goal." says Tim Barnes, executive director of the Ecumenical Senior Center.

According to Barnes, the ESC has had a long relationship with different departments at Western. Students from the occupational therapy program are frequent visitors, visiting to practice working with a senior population and lead them in physical and safety activities. In June, Barnes, Charlene Harkness, EMC operations coordinator, and Dr. Maureen Mickus, professor of occupational therapy, decided to expand the relationship to include WMU fashion students for their holiday gala.

Ms. Belue, Dalla Wong and Sam Baril

To prepare for the fashion show, seniors were assigned to partnered MODA and SOTA students who worked together to design their outfit. During meetings, SOTA students developed occupational profiles to provide a summary of the senior's patterns of daily living, activity level, interests and needs. The designers would then take the information to sketch designs fitting their profile.

"In the meetings, we learned about our senior to make sure everything was suited towards them," says Riley Groves, president of SOTA. "The designer then sketched out an idea using information from what we talked about. We then used that sketch as a guide when we out shopping for clothes."

With the sketch, SOTA students and seniors traveled to a local thrift store to find used pieces that closely matched with the design. The thrift store was selected as an affordable option for ESC seniors and to continue MODA's commitment to sustainability in their work.

"My partner was Sharon Dailey and we picked out the dress she wore and our designer shortened it for her," says Emma Norman, OT doctoral student. "The designer also made a duster to go over it. She got the material for it and made it custom to what Sharon was looking for." 

Jillian French and Emma Powell

After purchasing the clothes, designers then made alterations using the occupational profiles for guides and sizing. According to Wilson, the amount of time spent by the designer varied based on the needs of the senior. The majority of the outfits needed to hemmed to make mobility easier when using a cane or walkers. Other alterations included fixing buttons, creating accessory pieces or making small repairs.

"During the gala, SOTA helped with registration and getting everyone checked in," says Alexa Culley, OT student. "We also went around the room and helped out with dinner, carrying drinks and plates to everyone's table. We also helped in organizing the silent auction."  


Meanwhile, working behind the scenes MODA transformed their seniors into runway models helping them apply make-up and putting on their outfits. When it was time for the gala's fashion show SOTA took their seniors and helped them walk the runway. 

 "I liked working with them (WMU students)," said Emma Powell, an 100-year-old ESC senior. "They were very, very nice to me".

Kate Luvy, OT student adds, "I liked doing this event because I really enjoy putting a smile on the seniors' faces. They love to get dressed up, and they don't get the opportunity to do it often. So the fact that we can come here and do this for them means a lot."


Merchandising Opportunities and Design Association (MODA), is the registered student organization at WMU representing fashion majors and minors. Joining this organization offers opportunities to network and develop leadership and teamwork skills. Members produce several fashion shows each year and participate in community service activities. To learn more, follow MODA on Instagram.


The Student Occupational Therapy Association (SOTA) is offered at both campuses, Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids, with every occupational therapy student encouraged to join their corresponding association by attending one meeting per month. Joining SOTA has many benefits for students and surrounding communities. To learn more, visit the SOTA webpage.

For more WMU news, arts and events, visit WMU News online.