One Day Makes a Difference: Sick Kids, Big Smiles, and a New Whirlpool Washing Machine

October 21, 2015

Each year the U-M Tauber Institute makes a big impact on global operations by sending students on fourteen week projects to solve problems for world class companies.  But a free one day consultation for a local nonprofit can be equally powerful.  And a seemingly small action - like asking Whirlpool to donate a washing machine - can make a huge difference.

Tauber's Fourth Annual Community Service Day brought students, faculty, staff, and members of the U-M Tauber Institute for Global Operations' Industry Advisory Board together to work with four Southeast Michigan organizations chosen for their contributions to their communities:  Clean Energy Coalition, FAR Conservatory,  Recycle Ann Arbor ReUse Center, and Ryan’s Case for Smiles (formerly named ConKerr Cancer).  By providing insights to improve operations, Tauber teams help these organizations leverage their resources to maximize their good work.

Ryan’s Case for Smiles was founded by a mother whose twelve year old son was diagnosed with cancer.  She made colorful pillowcases to brighten up his hospital room, and soon other young patients were asking if they could have special pillowcases too.  Now Ryan’s Case for Smiles has delivered over one million unique pillowcases to children facing life-threatening illnesses, thanks to thousands of volunteers sewing nationwide for a network of local chapters.

The Detroit area chapter of Ryan’s Case for Smiles is truly homegrown.  After seeing a television interview with founder Cindy Kerr, Sue Ellen Kosmas felt she had to help.  Next thing she knew, Sue was launching the organization’s Detroit area chapter.  Eight years and over 31,000 pillowcases later, Sue still manages Detroit’s pillowcase production from her living room, washing thousands of yards of fabric in her family’s laundry room to meet hospital requirements.  Volunteers assemble the pillowcases on their personal sewing machines in their homes, at small group events, and at an annual one day event where Sue creates a pillowcase factory in a church fellowship hall. 

Sue was befuddled when Tauber contacted her about being part of Community Service Day.  These people didn’t know anything about sewing!  How could they help?  But after a little online research about Tauber’s past successes, Sue thought, "You know, I don’t have anything to lose.  If I learn one thing, then my day has been worth its while." 

The experience of working with Tauber delivered far more than Sue ever dreamed.   "I did not know what to expect, and here I have these three young ladies that come into my home with two leaders – and these students were so intelligent,”  Sue says, “I was just in awe of what they knew about production and getting the job done efficiently…  I felt like it was such an honor to work with them."

The Tauber team helped Sue identify problem areas in her organization and create practical solutions.  In just a few hours, they developed a pillowcase “kit” to make sewing pillowcases easier for volunteers, while lowering overall cost, and ensuring that Sue would receive pillowcases that met hospital specifications.  This eliminated wasted time, effort, and materials used for hundreds of pillowcase donations sent to Sue that hospitals could not accept.  “You get a bunch of bright students together with a bunch of executives who have a lot of experience in solving problems and it’s amazing what they come up with in terms of helping an organization in a very short period of time,” said Al Woodliff, former Tauber Co-Director, Industry Advisory Board Member, and part of the Tauber Community Service Day team, “I think it’s a great learning experience, and the bottom line is, we’re helping the community at the same time, offering some of our talents within the Tauber Institute to help these organizations out.”

While the Tauber team was working with Sue on streamlining her operations, they discovered another issue.  Tauber student Martha Nuebauer recalls, "Sue said that she runs loads and loads of fabric through her washing machine week after week and that her washing machine was getting quite old and worn.  She said every day she fears that it will just stop working and she was almost brought to tears because she didn’t think she could afford a new washing machine right now.  I would have hated for this to be the reason that she could no longer run the organization.  I interned at Whirlpool Corporation the previous summer, and I thought that maybe if I contacted my friends there that they would be able to donate a washing machine to Sue.”

Martha reached out, and was able to secure a new washing machine donation through the Whirlpool Young Professionals Network.  “We were able to surprise Sue with it, and she was unbelievably excited and grateful.  I’m so happy that she won’t have to worry about her washing machine anymore and that Ryan’s Case for Smiles can live on in Detroit!"

Sue has been working hard to implement the Tauber team’s recommendations, and is thrilled to see how not only her own efforts, but also the contributions from donors and volunteers can now help even more young patients.  “I will be forever grateful because of what they’ve given to my chapter of this organization…  I just sat in awe when they left.  And I was like, wow, I can’t believe that this happened.” 

About Tauber Institute for Global Operations

The Tauber Institute for Global Operations is a joint venture between the University of Michigan’s Stephen M. Ross School of Business and the College of Engineering, and numerous industry partners to facilitate cross-disciplinary education in global operations management. In addition to a broad array of core and elective courses, the innovative LeadershipAdvantageSM Program provides students with the tools to ascend to major operations leadership roles. Well-designed and managed team projects form the cornerstone of the Tauber Institute experience and allow students to apply their knowledge to real world settings. The Tauber Institute is an inaugural recipient of the UPS George D. Smith Prize for effective and innovative preparation of students to be good practitioners of operations research, management science, or analytics.

Theresa Ceccarelli 734-647-0308