October 13, 2009 — When Hurricane Camille devastated Nelson County in 1969, University of Virginia student volunteers were among the first to arrive to help people dig out and clean up the wreckage.
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Shortly after that event, the volunteers formed a student organization to address the needs of the surrounding community. The organization eventually became Madison House, the University's main student volunteer center.
Forty years later, Madison House enlists about 3,300 students who volunteer weekly in a diverse array of 19 programs at almost 90 sites in Charlottesville and Albemarle County.
To celebrate 40 years of community service, Madison House will hold a picnic, free and open to the public, on Friday from 3 to 5 p.m. in Madison Bowl on Rugby Road, kicking off a yearlong series of events.
When the University YMCA's membership dried up in the late 1960s, U.Va. students who wanted to volunteer started Madison House programs in housing improvement, tutoring and offering companionship to disadvantaged children, older folks in nursing homes and mental health patients.
Programs have been added over the decades as students have recognized specific needs or community members have turned to Madison House. For instance, students formed what became "Holiday Sharing" in 1973 to gather food and prepare gifts for local families during the Christmas season. This program invites the U.Va. community to participate, and students organize and deliver the donations.
Madison House also sponsors an annual one-day project, which changes every year, which gives students and alumni a chance to participate in community outreach without making a long-term commitment.
The Medical Services program, begun in 1972, continually attracts the highest number of students who volunteer at the U.Va. Health System, Charlottesville Free Clinic and Martha Jefferson Hospital.
"Volunteering has opened my eyes to the world," said Elizabeth Troxel, who volunteered in pediatrics at the U.Va. Medical Center before graduating in May. She credits her volunteer work with helping her "grow up and realize that there's a lot more to life."
Devoted to serving the community in which their university is located, Madison House students tell over and over again how their volunteer experience has changed their lives, said Elizabeth Bass, Madison House's interim executive director.
Bass herself is a prime example: She found her career path when a student at U.Va. working in a Madison House program.
|Madison House Programs|
Animals and Environment
Bridging the Gap
Cavs in the Classroom
English as a Second Language
Hoos Against Hunger and Homelessness
PLAY: After School Activities
Bass described her time volunteering at two day care centers in town as "the highlight of my week."
"That is a consistent theme with a lot of our volunteers – they enjoy that time to take a break from student life and be a community member," she said.
Ashley Cochrane, a 1995 alumna who worked with the housing improvement programs in Charlottesville and Albemarle, said, "Madison House was really where I found community – a community of friends and meaningful work. It helped me to get beyond the University and get connected to the community."
Cochrane, who this spring received the Madison House Legacy of Service Award, is another person who found her calling through volunteer work. She is now associate director for Berea College's Center for Excellence in Learning Through Service.
Third-year student Robin Kendall said volunteering with Madison House "has been an important part of my University experience, because it is a small way for me to give back to the Charlottesville community." A double major in global development studies in the College of Arts & Sciences and in finance at the McIntire School of Commerce, she is a program director in charge of the student volunteers tutoring at Broadus Wood Elementary School.
She sees her work with Madison House as a complement to her studies and a way to practice locally what she is learning about in her global studies.
"I read theories and articles all the time about how important community-based development and education is," Kendall said. "I believe that in any country or place you are in, be it Charlottesville, Nicaragua or Bangladesh, a country's future is in its children, and education is the key to creating a brighter future. So although one weekly tutoring session may not seem like a lot, having even one child excited to learn is an important step to making a better world."
One of Madison House's hallmarks, reflecting U.Va.'s emphasis on student self-governance, is operating on a student-led, staff-supported model. The five-member permanent staff provides advice and assures the sustainability of the programs, but students take on the daily administrative and leadership tasks and responsibilities and create new programs, Bass said.
Today Madison House is one of the largest student organizations of its kind in the country and has won several national awards. Last year, it was among five U.Va. programs cited when the University was named to the U.S. President's Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll. It has twice been named a "daily point of light" by the Points of Light Foundation created by President George H.W. Bush.
"For four decades, Madison House has brought students together around a shared interest in community service," said Patricia Lampkin, U.Va.'s vice president and chief student affairs officer. "It is here that many students have first come to realize that living a full life includes service to others; that being a citizen-leader involves looking beyond your own world and engaging with people and ideas outside your known circle."
Student volunteers have dedicated more than 3 million hours of their time to community service, and they're adding to that every day.