After he graduated from the University of Virginia, Tim Freilich wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with his life, having tried the pre-med route and then psychology. He spent several years doing “what to many folks in their young 20s might seem like the ideal jobs – backpacking guide, travel guide writer, park ranger.”
Two decades later, he’s come full circle: returning to U.Va. as the executive director of Madison House, where he was once a student volunteer and was recognized as Madison House’s “Alum of the Year” in 2005 for his public service work.
Freilich grew up mostly in Blacksburg, and graduated from U.Va. in 1993, double-majoring in Spanish and psychology. After three adventurous years exploring professional possibilities, he returned to U.Va. to attend the School of Law and earned his J.D. in 1999, where he was awarded the Robert F. Kennedy Award for Public Service upon graduation
Less than a week into his new job, Freilich recently sat down with UVA Today to reflect on his undergraduate experience with Madison House and how it influenced his journey, his work with the Legal Aid Justice Center for 15 years and his vision for Madison House.
Q. What made you decide to take the job as executive director and what do you bring to it?
A. What’s really attractive to me about the position is the ability to work with both the University community and the Charlottesville community.
If you live in Charlottesville, there’s a good chance you’ve come into contact with a Madison House volunteer somewhere. But I think there are very few people who really understand the extent to which Madison House volunteers are in so many of the most important institutions in the Charlottesville and Albemarle communities – whether it is the long-term care facilities through the Adopt-a-Grandparent program, the public school system with Cavs in the Classroom or local food banks. Both hospitals, U.Va. and Martha Jefferson, also have large volunteer contingents now. We really have a mind-boggling array of volunteer placements.
I think as someone who’s worked in the nonprofit sector here in town for the last 15 years, I have a solid understanding of the community in which we’re working, as well as a lot of personal relationships with other key folks in the nonprofit sector.
Q. What was your Madison House job as an undergraduate?
A. From the age of 13, I had thought I wanted to be a pediatrician, so I came to U.Va., took pre-med classes and started volunteering through Madison House on the pediatric unit at the U.Va. hospital. I loved it! I absolutely loved working with the children. At the same time, I realized I didn’t necessarily want to work in the hospital environment. So I changed and added psychology as a major. ... It took a few years before I figured out that I wanted to go to law school.
Q. What did you do during the years in between?
A. I spent a year working as a volunteer for the park service in Costa Rica. I spent a year back in Charlottesville working on a travel guide to El Salvador and then a year out in Portland, Oregon working as a bilingual trial assistant for a criminal defense attorney. When I moved out to Portland, I was looking for a job that would use my Spanish, and I wanted to check out either education or law as possible careers.
Q. How did you end up working at the Legal Aid Justice Center in town after finishing law school?
A. I was really lucky – I had a fellowship from the law firm of SkaddenArps to work at the Legal Aid Justice Center in what at the time was a new migrant farm worker program.
I found that the combination of the incredible clients that I got to work with, the wonderfully talented colleagues and the constantly shifting environment for immigrants whom I represented kept it personally and professionally challenging.
Q. Then the Madison House position became available ...
A. It’s been really the only job that’s popped up locally where I’ve thought, “Wow, that could be fun, that could be really interesting.”
Q. What does Madison House add to the U.Va. student experience?
A. Madison House gives students a chance to learn and lead while serving the greater Charlottesville-Albemarle community. Our volunteers gain real-world experience. It’s one thing to discuss issues of poverty in a small seminar on Grounds; it’s another thing entirely to mentor a young kid from a low-income family, help someone file their tax return or work to repair substandard housing. There is no doubt that some of the most profound learning experiences a U.Va. student can have are available through Madison House.
I keep hearing from Madison House alumni whose career choices were dramatically influenced by their time as a volunteer. Students who want to explore careers in education, law, medicine or social services, or who just want a chance to improve their leadership skills, have countless opportunities to do so.
Lifelong friendships are formed through Madison House. Maybe it’s the long car rides to the migrant labor camps, or coaching youth soccer together, or bonding with a little sibling through the Big Sibs program or staffing the Help Line, but something about volunteering through Madison House forges relationships that last long after students have graduated from the University.
Q. What are your goals for the job?
A. I would like to make sure that our volunteers are working in the places where they can make the biggest impact in the community. I think Madison House is one of the finest things U.Va. has going for it. We have some of the best U.Va. students at their best, doing their best. They are really aware, insightful and dedicated to their programs.
Part of what I hope to do is help the larger community be more aware of the many ways in which Madison House volunteers are serving as a force multiplier for their favorite nonprofits that they already support. That is one of the key benefits to the Charlottesville-Albemarle community – the way in which the volunteers are enabling many of Charlottesville’s nonprofits to do their jobs more efficiently, effectively and successfully.
I want to reach out more to Madison House alums and former board members, to get them re-engaged if they have drifted.
I would like to see Madison House not just be a wonderful nonprofit in its own right, but also to be a leading nonprofit in the community because we have such a special relationship with so many other nonprofits.
Q. What else lies ahead?
A. I’m aware that I have been entrusted with an organization with a tremendous 45-year history of serving both the University and the greater Charlottesville communities. I am going to do everything I can to earn that trust, and that includes reaching out to both the folks who were there at the beginning, as well as the many supporters over the years, as we move toward our 50th anniversary. Clearly one of my main goals will be to position Madison House for the next successful 50 years of student leadership development and service to the community.