December 6, 2010 — "Every 'Hoo in Hooville Loves Holiday Sharing," read the T-shirts worn by University of Virginia student volunteers Saturday as they festively welcomed families that stopped in at Madison House to receive holiday gifts and food.
It was "distribution day" for Holiday Sharing – the culmination of a semester-long project that the U.Va. student volunteer clearinghouse has coordinated each year since 1987. The student volunteers – many of whom also donned reindeer antlers, long red hats and tinkling bells¬ – had arrived before 9 a.m. at Madison House's Rugby Road headquarters to set up the party with juice and Bodo's bagels, coffee and hot chocolate. They went over their lists and checked them twice to make sure all the packages were ready.
Mary Heppenstall, the head program director who has worked with Holiday Sharing for three years, pronounced the scene "amazing."
The party brightened the holiday season for about 110 Charlottesville-area families referred by the local Salvation Army and Madison House's migrant aid program. The Holiday Sharing program recruits sponsoring groups to provide families with groceries and holiday gifts they otherwise could not afford. The program recommends suggested donations that average $150 to $375 per family, depending on its size.
"Families are always grateful. One mother in particular thanked us for taking the stress out of her holiday season. We're confident that the work of our volunteers and donors is making a big difference this year," said Karver Bolton, Director of Programs at Madison House.
Some adults said getting the gifts was really helpful for making the holiday fun for the children.
Santa Claus waited by a glittering tree for those children brave enough to sit on his lap while their mothers took pictures. Several littler ones, about 3 years old, approached and stared, but opted to go back to a more familiar lap or nearby chair.
As they waited, a University a capella singing group, the Sil'Hooettes, added to the festivities, filling the room with harmonies on "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas."
Cookie decorating was set up in a room down the hall. Boys and girls frosted snowflakes and trees, with plenty of sprinkles and jimmies to spread around. U.Va. Catering donated about 90 cookies, Madison House director Elizabeth Bass said.
As holiday music played softly, families dropped in and out as the afternoon waned. The student volunteers disappeared into their "workshop" and came out carrying gifts, bags and boxes. A doll peeked out here; a soccer ball balanced there. The helpers lined up and followed each family of wide-eyed children out to their cars.
Madison House solicits sponsors and counts among them academic departments and offices from the University, plus church groups, community members and even a Cub Scout troop. Each group is asked to provide food for at least three full meals for their sponsored family and a gift certificate for perishable items from a local grocery store. In addition, the group buys gifts for each family member. Some groups keep sponsoring for years and years, Bass said.
"It really gets you in the holiday spirit," Heppenstall said.