Toys, books and other gifts, foods from oatmeal to muffin mix, and more overflowed dozens of boxes. Determined University of Virginia students assembled small bicycles, checked and double-checked their lists. People came and went, dropping off packages.
Madison House, the University’s student volunteer center, was crowded and busy this week as students prepared for the annual Holiday Sharing program that culminates in a Saturday celebration for local families in need. It is one of 23 programs Madison House offers that benefit area residents in many ways.
The mission of the program: providing these families – 130 this year – with all the fixings for an abundant holiday celebration.
“We want to help families achieve a holiday celebration that more privileged people might take for granted,” Head Program Director Lee Williams said. A fourth-year student majoring in education and psychology, he said having a happy celebration shouldn’t depend on one’s socioeconomic status. Williams has volunteered for Holiday Sharing since he came to UVA and twice served as a program director.
For the Holiday Sharing distribution day, held Saturday this year, the student volunteers transform the first floor of Madison House into a festive place. As families arrive in shifts, they can head to a room down the hall to decorate cookies and meet Santa Claus. Members of the AcHOOstics a cappella group will serenade the guests. Volunteers will be on hand to help load up vehicles with the holiday bounty.
Second-year student T.J. Arms decided to become a Holiday Sharing volunteer because he thinks the program “is really impactful in a direct way to the community,” he said, adding that he’s looking forward to meeting the family he shopped for on Saturday.
For months ahead of time, about 65 student volunteers, including the head program director and five program directors, recruit sponsors and donors on Grounds and in the community, plus work with the Salvation Army, which refers the families. Groups and individuals can sponsor a family or give a monetary donation that will go toward a family’s holiday packages.
“The Salvation Army will never be able to adequately thank Madison House for their help in making a Christmas to remember for so many homes and families,” said Susan Shiels, Salvation Army of Charlottesville advisory board commander. “Every opportunity we get to work side by side with the outstanding leaders of Madison House while serving our community is a win for the Salvation Army staff and volunteers.”
Williams said the pool of sponsors and donors is diverse – from student groups, such as Greek organizations and club sports teams, to academic and administrative departments, including the president’s office, to alumni nationwide. Businesses and individuals in the area also participate.
This year, volunteers began using a new online system that a UVA computer science team developed last spring to keep track of all the family and sponsor information.
While family surnames are confidential, the Holiday Sharing volunteers provide some information to sponsors, such as children’s ages, clothes and shoe sizes, and what’s on their wish lists. The volunteers also suggest a list of non-perishable foods to provide at least three meals and a grocery gift donation for the family to purchase fresh food.
As sponsor representatives bring in their packages, volunteers organize everything and can use donations to make sure they have all the items on the list for each family.
“We more than doubled our total monetary donations from last year. This year we’ve received more than $17,000. All of that money goes directly to supporting families by either sponsoring entire families or supplementing food and gifts,” Williams said. The students collected another approximately $34,000 in donations of food and gifts.
“We saw extraordinary generosity from sponsors and donors this year going above and beyond our suggestions,” he said.
“Madison House’s Holiday Sharing program gives our students a chance to show their appreciation for the community by working to brighten the holidays of local children and families in need,” Madison House Executive Director Tim Freilich said. “In the process of coordinating donations from departments across the University, our Madison House Holiday Sharing leaders gain important skills. They learn firsthand how to budget, manage volunteers, communicate effectively with stakeholders and track donations – all while helping share some love for the holidays.”