Shaping the World: Rachel Thompson

The Story Behind Marlena Books

Rachel Thompson (BSc '15) watched her grandmother Marilyn live with dementia for many years, and was surprised to discover that even with her cognitive impairments, Marilyn could still read. Unfortunately for Marilyn, who was once an avid reader, standard books with complex stories and small print became too difficult — and children's books with larger print and simpler stories were not engaging for someone her age.

At the same time, Rachel's other grandmother, Helena, was undergoing treatment for breast cancer and found that reading, an activity that she once found therapeutic, was becoming increasingly difficult because of the mediation she was on.

Rachel wanted both of her grandmothers to be able to enjoy reading again and decided that she could do something about it. As she neared completion of her degree in Health Studies, Rachel began looking for research into the effects that reading had for people living with Alzheimer's and dementia, and found that there wasn't a large body of research in this area. The good news was that all of the studies that had been done showed evidence that reading could help with mental stimulation for adults with dementia. 

Becoming an entrepreneur

Though she had never considered herself an entrepreneur, Rachel knew that she had identified a gap in the current way of doing things and saw an opportunity to make a difference. Not only could she help her own grandmothers, but she could potentially help millions of other adults who face similar impairments. She pitched her idea — specially designed and written books for adults with cognitive impairment — at the GreenHouse Big Ideas Challenge and was one of a handful of students to receive a fellowship to spend a term in St. Paul's GreenHouse.

With the help of staff and mentors, Rachel launched her social venture, Marlena Books (named for both grandmothers), that would focus on reading material with mature content, simplified stories, and thicker pages. Informed by research and multiple trials, Marlena Books could make reading enjoyable and dignified again.

During her time with GreenHouse, Marlena Books tested the idea and prototype on individuals with dementia through a pilot with the Centre for Community Based Research, and had five stories written by local authors. Rachel has also been receiving sales mentorship from another social venture, Textbooks for Change, and will apply that knowledge when selling her titles to the long-term care homes.

Pitch and grant competitions provide necessary funds

Besides being a recipient of GreenHouse’s Social Impact Fund and other grants, Rachel won top prize at the Schlegel Village Innovation Den, and most recently received a $20,000 grant from the Spark Initiative, a project that supports young entrepreneurs.

In the meantime, Rachel is also running art programs in two long-term care homes in the region, which serve a dual purpose: To collect illustrations for use in future books (abstract art works best because representative illustrations are more difficult to process for people with cognitive challenges), and to test whether the creation of the art itself is helpful to the patients.

She has done all this in one year.

Rachel maintains her connection with St. Paul's and GreenHouse and continues to share her story with students who are new to the program. Marlena Books now operates out of the Epp Peace Incubator at the Centre for Peace Advancement at Conrad Grebel and has heard from 30 long-term care facilities with an interest in her product.

Entrepreneurship is risky, and it’s scary, and you can read all the books, and take all the classes, and attend all the seminars, but there is no outline on how to do this: How to create something from nothing, how to build a team, how to deal with challenges, and how to have a social impact while doing that.” Rachel Thompson

Sticking with it

Rachel is aware that the path to being a successful social entrepreneur is riddled with challenges and she knows that to be successful she must be willing to step outside her comfort zone. She also knows that she can't do it alone and is grateful for the support she has received from the St. Paul's community. 

Rachel Thompson speaking at the St. Paul's golf tournament

Rachel shares her story with alumni and friends at the 9th Annual St. Paul's Masters golf tournament

“A quote that’s been sticking with me lately is, ‘Feel the fear and do it anyway.’ When I get scared, and filled with doubt on if what I’m doing is the right thing to do, if I’m making the right decision, I think about my grandmother, and the fear that she must feel. I wonder if she’s scared being confused with dementia. And then I think that if I could create a book for her to bring a little more familiarity to her life, if that would make it better, if that would help her face the fear. For me, that familiarity is St. Paul’s GreenHouse.”

Rachel's story is just one of many that reflect the type of passionate students that St. Paul's and the GreenHouse program attract. We are raising $500,000 through the Shape the World Campaign to expand our facilities and programming to ensure the success of these and future students. 

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