Last spring, Katie Thompson (Col ’15) tutored a high school student who was at high risk for dropping out. The son of Latino immigrants, he was working a part-time job to help support his family. He skipped school often. Why get a diploma, he asked Thompson, when he already had a paying job and couldn’t foresee a better one? Thompson quickly realized that her job was not just to teach the teen science and biology, but to help him understand that a high school diploma could help him down the road, especially if he could become a U.S. citizen.
His hopelessness, says Thompson, exemplifies some of the many problems facing Charlottesville’s fast-growing but largely invisible Latino and migrant community.
“I want people to know that five minutes from here, there is a trailer park that’s really struggling,” says Thompson. This is why she volunteers with the Latino and Migrant Aid program through Madison House, an independent nonprofit student volunteer organization.
Since 1969, Madison House has provided a way for students to help underserved members of the local community. Its 19 volunteer programs each partner with established community organizations.
About 3,100 students—including 20 head program directors responsible for managing and motivating them—volunteer through Madison House for at least one hour each week. Their efforts add up to more than 110,000 hours of service each year.
“There are tremendous needs in the community. But once students get to know the individuals who have those needs, they realize that—even as a student—they can make a positive impact, one person at a time.”
—Tim Freilich (Col '93, Law '99), Madison House executive director
Students say that it is easy to volunteer their time when the difference they make in the community is clear. Thompson saw the value of those hours when the student she was tutoring pulled his biology grade from an F to a C in six weeks. “It was an awesome struggle,” she says, one that continues to motivate her to volunteer as she finishes up her own degree while concurrently taking graduate classes.
Bursting out of the UVA “bubble” gives students an important view of their role in the community, many in the program agree. As college students, says Thompson, “we are privileged enough to volunteer. We should volunteer.”
Some Madison House volunteer programs:
“The humility of the volunteer experience is realizing that it’s not about what you’re getting,” says head program director Helen Elizabeth Old (Col ’16). “It’s about being present and realizing how much your time can mean to someone else.” Old is one of approximately 150 students who have been matched with a “grandparent” at a local assisted-living facility or nursing home. Students visit for an hour each week and take walks, sit for conversations, watch television or eat a meal with their grandparent.
Students in this program work with adults and children who have various disabilities. Each of the program’s three community partners—Therapeutic Adventures, Inc.; Charlottesville Area Riding Therapy; and Charlottesville Area 3 Special Olympics—offers a different type of activity, but they all serve a common purpose. “These are families, children, who don’t necessarily follow a typical plan,” says Ambler Goddin (Col ’15), a program director with CART. “They don’t get to do a lot of the things that other kids and families might, so this is a way for them to explore new areas and have new experiences.” Students help coaches and instructors run events and lessons.
The Big Siblings group works with Charlottesville and Albemarle County schools to pair children and young adolescents with “big sibling” student volunteers. Parents and/or counselors identify children who could benefit from forming a close bond with a college student. “The program is very individual,” says former head program director Allie Iaccarino (Arch ’15). “Full responsibility is on the volunteers. They’re trusted with taking a few hours of their time every week to spend with their little sibling.” Sibling pairs are matched based on age, interests, shared qualities and needs.
From building sheds to removing lead paint, the students in this program make a visible difference in the homes of low-income residents. “UVA and Charlottesville are completely different places,” says Trevor Jordan (Col ’17), housing improvement head program director. The Grounds are meticulously maintained, he says, but just a block or two away there are homes in need of serious repair. Through partnerships with Habitat for Humanity, the Habitat Store and the Albemarle Housing Improvement Program, students spend three hours each week working on those homes.
Latino and Migrant Aid
Students in this program work with an underserved community. Some LAMA clients are documented immigrants and contracted migrant workers who come from Mexico to work for a few months harvesting apples, peaches and Christmas trees, then return home. Many clients, however, are not yet citizens. All are poor. Student volunteers visit migrant camps on a seasonal basis, providing English classes to the workers, and help run citizenship training and GED classes. The program also offers tutoring and mentorship for children and adolescents.