November 2, 2011 — Every week, 140 University of Virginia student volunteers step off Grounds into an entirely different community through Madison House's Hoos Assisting with Life Obstacles program, or HALO, which helps the area's homeless, hungry and less fortunate.
HALO, formerly known as Hoos Against Hunger and Homelessness (and before that ABLE), was first established at Madison House in 1990. This fall, the program added two new outreaches: Legal Aid, a nonprofit legal services center, and Beyond the Bars, an inmate tutoring program. With this expansion came the new name to encompass the increased breadth of its mission.
Additionally, HALO sends volunteers to six other area locations, including The Salvation Army soup kitchen, The Haven homeless day shelter and the On Our Own drop-in addiction rehabilitation clinic.
Ana Tucker, a fourth-year biology major in the College of Arts & Sciences, has been the head program director for HALO for the past two years. Tucker, who plans to become a doctor, developed a passion for community service and the homeless during high school, when she went on mission trips to South Africa and Jamaica. In these countries, "Seeing the disparity of wealth was very disconcerting for me," she said.
One story, in particular, is telling of Tucker's time in South Africa. Every afternoon, the children and volunteers got a bag of chips for a snack. When after a few days, Tucker realized that this one bag of chips was the only food the children would have all day, she gave her chips away. Yet these small gestures could not make much of a difference. She said, "I can give them a bag of chips today, but that doesn't help them when I'm gone."
When Tucker came to U.Va., she brought along her passion for volunteering.
"Some people have a heart for activities. I have a heart for community service," she said.
Tucker found her perfect niche through Madison House and HALO. As head program director, she oversaw the creation of the On Our Own and Beyond the Bars partnerships.
HALO offers a variety of ways to help the less fortunate, setting it apart from most Madison House programs. If students want to form relationships and see the same people week after week, they can volunteer with On Our Own. If students want to help the homeless more indirectly, they can sort food at the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank Network. Or, if the volunteers want to form close bonds quickly, they can volunteer at The Haven homeless shelter.
"I am constantly impressed by the volunteers within HALO," Madison House director of programs Jennifer Walker said. "They are some of the most dedicated and caring volunteers we have."
Third-year McIntire School of Commerce student Max Grant, the HALO program director at The Haven, began volunteering there during his second semester at U.Va.
Volunteering at The Haven reminds Grant that he can help ease the troubles of his fellow community members. "The Haven has allowed me to dive into the vibrant Charlottesville community and learn more than I could have ever learned by just sitting in a classroom," he said.
One day, two Haven guests taught Grant how to play gin rummy, and the lesson was followed by an intense competition over the next few hours. Days like those are the reasons he goes back to The Haven, week after week, he said. "At the core of the experience is the human aspect – the chance to step outside of the U.Va. bubble and form relationships with disadvantaged members of the Charlottesville community."
HALO also helps combat not only stereotypes U.Va. students may have of homeless people and drug addicts, but also ones the Charlottesville community has of U.Va. students. When Tucker began volunteering at On Our Own, many of the program participants viewed U.Va. students as "rich" and "callous," she said. Yet, Tucker recalled, just a few weeks later, when the Madison House volunteers left the center, the participants started clapping and saying, "Thank you, Madison House. Thank you for all you've done for us."
What matters to the HALO volunteers most, they say, are the small differences they make.
"It's the little moments – making someone smile. It just really highlights my day. If I put a smile on someone's face, if even for three seconds, it's worth it to me," Tucker said.