April 17, 2008 — Every April, University of Virginia alumni philanthropy sees a spike in activity. While the causes helped are many, the source of inspiration is one: Wahoos nationwide commemorate founder Thomas Jefferson's birthday through Cavaliers Care Worldwide, an ambitious initiative connecting diverse volunteer projects at alumni clubs under a common banner of service.
The UVaClub of Charlottesville makes the most of its proximity to U.Va. students and works with them in the fall and in the spring. The group also includes community members who are not associated with the University at all. Alumni will participate with Madison House, the University's major student volunteer center, on April 19, working on several projects for the Cavaliers Care initiative.
Charlottesville volunteers will work alongside students and others at the Cedars Nursing Home, cleaning the courtyards, trimming hedges, raking, and power-washing the deck area. If it's a rainy day, they'll help indoors with a bingo marathon. Other volunteers will help at McIntire Park by staffing a trail race (from 7 to 10 a.m.), planting trees or setting up for the April 22 Earth Day Festival in the park.
Community service chairman Mike Knasel, a 1962 Engineering School graduate, said, "The committee finds unique ways to link our volunteers with U.Va. students and other volunteers in the community. We structure events that get the volunteers working right away helping out. The events are structured for all adult family members and teen-aged children to be included.
"We introduce the volunteers to two new worthy charities or needed community projects each year. Many volunteers like one of these and then return to volunteer with that group subsequently. It is relatively hard for the individual to locate and research good charities, and to plan a project. The UVaClub does the planning needed to allow the volunteer to focus directly on the project work."
Service Committee member Susan Carr said that partnering with Madison House "adds an extra touch on top of the variety of the club's service volunteers, who already span from high school students to young parents to retired seniors."
Letitia H. Green, managing partner of the Virginia Active Angel Network, appreciates the inclusion of community members. "We are a club that provides all members in the community with a way to participate in all sorts of U.Va.-associated opportunities through the club," she said.
At least 25 alumni are expected to turn out for these projects, said Sarah Brown, director of regional engagement in the University's Office of Engagement.
U.Va. alumnus Matt Shaver, a 2002 economics and studio arts graduate who wa sa Madison House program director and Sigma Pi president, said the Shenandoah Valley town he grew up in was "small enough that you knew your neighbor." Pitching in on community activities like river clean-ups was expected, he said. Shaver now heads Cavaliers Care for the UVaClub of Richmond, where April 13 has expanded into a monthlong series of volunteer activities, culminating in a reception at Jefferson Park.
Project beneficiaries of the Richmond club span generations. This year's calendar features activities with both the Virginia Home for adults with physical disabilities and in Luther King Jr. Middle School. Activities rang from the hands-on (beautifying the park) to the playful (last year's notorious Hokies vs. Hoos Food Fight, which the U.Va. team won for the first time, raising $9,000 for the Central Virginia Food Bank). According to Shaver, this range of activities has sparked a corresponding range in volunteers in recent years.
"We're offering different volunteering outlets that appeal to a wider base of the alumni. The great cross-section of people we saw last year was reminiscent of when you would volunteer at U.Va. as a student and come across a lot of interesting people of diverse backgrounds. Philanthropy is one of the easiest ways to meet people on a common ground."
Today an official program supported by the University's Office of Engagement, Cavaliers Care began as a grassroots project of the Young Alumni Council in 1999. Programming Committee chairwoman Yvonne Merkel, a 1991 alumna, and her cohort of recent graduates were in search of an effective strategy to boost and sustain the University's alumni engagement ratings. The notion of an annual day of service organized independently by local UVaClubs, with some central coordination, resonated strongly with Merkel, who had served as leader of the Atlanta club.
"Clubs are the workhorse of our alumni engagement efforts, in my opinion. They're the way to keep everyone connected," Merkel said. "But as a club leader, one of your challenges is getting a real cross-section of the alumni out together."
Cavaliers Care has steadily grown since UVaClubs adopted it in 2001. That first April, 16 clubs conducted 28 service events, engaging 450 alumni. By 2007, those numbers had jumped to 33 clubs and 52 projects, with the number of participants more than doubling as a growing number of UVaClubs designated a "service" or "Cavaliers Care" chair to organize a group volunteer activity for their region. Local clubs receive wide-ranging support from the UVaClubs program and a team of regional engagement officers, including real-time registration tracking through the Cavaliers Care Web site, a ready-made participant list and T-shirts in family sizes.
"The Advisory Council is a meeting of the minds of folks who've done different things around the country," said Shaver, who sits on the alumni advisory board along with Merkel. "To me, it's simple — we've got this great network of alumni and a pretty selfless student body. Size [of the activity] doesn't matter; what matters is that they're doing something positive. Cavaliers Care gives those who are service-oriented an outlet to act."
College alumna Neela Pal is a freelance writer living and working in Manhattan.