Kim Bassing earned her BA from UVA in 1979, majoring in English Literature and Sociology, and developed a lifelong interest in the nonprofit and volunteer sectors while volunteering with Madison House. She has lived all over the United States as a military child and spouse and, during which time she volunteered with the Red Cross, USAF Family Services, Girl Scouts of America, ballet companies, and various school and sports organizations. She has worked in both the for-profit and nonprofit sectors including positions in child care, healthcare, the Southwestern Illinois Tourism Bureau, and currently works as the Membership Manager at the Center for Nonprofit Excellence. Kim is excited to return to the Charlottesville area where there is such community support for the nonprofit sector.

I read a story in C-ville, an area paper on Charlottesville happenings, when I first returned to live in Charlottesville in 2009, after 28 years spent living all over the country. It listed the top 25 things considered hallmarks if you want to feel at home and more like a “local”—one of the 25 was volunteering in the community.

I first arrived in Charlottesville, like many non-natives do, as a bright-eyed and somewhat innocent young First Year Student at UVA. I loved the town, the University and the scenic beauty surrounding Charlottesville.  My first introduction to volunteering in Charlottesville was through Madison House and the Charlottesville Housing Improvement Program, where I served as a Head PD in charge of recruiting volunteers to help families with rehabilitating their homes. The experience gave me the opportunity to live the lessons learned in class, and get involved in the community beyond the Grounds. I tried to carry what I learned with me as I moved on to career opportunities and life beyond college.

Upon returning to Charlottesville, I knew I wanted to stay involved, and the MH Alumni Council has been a great opportunity–I recommend it to everyone! In my current job at the Center for Nonprofit Excellence, a local resource center dedicated to strengthening the nonprofit sector and the community, I see examples on a daily basis of the wonderful work Madison House volunteers accomplish in so many area organizations.  Their enthusiasm and dedication provide invaluable outreach for the University and the community.  If you find yourself back in Charlottesville, I hope you’ll visit Madison House, re-live some of your own memories, and see all the exciting programs in action today.

The more hands, hearts and minds that are working to serve the needs in each of our communities, the more we can accomplish.  I’m proud of my association with Madison House, our past record of service, and those who continue as volunteers today.  I can’t wait to see all that lies ahead!

I went to Trinity this past week and found my adopted grandmother quietly asleep in her nursing room bed. I decided not to wake her, and instead, I played bingo with the other elders. I got into a brief conversation with one, Natalie, after the bingo game, and like the start of most great talks, we started with the weather.

It was a windy, cold day this past Saturday, so I mentioned that and she agreed, saying, “Yes, it’s been so cold lately.” I agreed, and she agreed with my agreement, and we went on with head nods and small comments about global warming until she mentioned the giant pile of snow at Barrack’s.

“Oh yeah. It’s huge!” I said, and she went on to say that there is a competition to see when exactly it will melt.

“Well, June I expect, maybe July,” she said and I agreed. With that, she sighed a little and asked where I was from. I told her I was from UVA, and she said, “Oh that’s nice.” She looked around the cafeteria, down back at her lap, back at me. Unconsciously, I nodded an agreement. She said, “Oh well. It was very nice talking to you. Good luck with everything.” She wheeled away, and I just nodded.

I’m amazed at how such tenuous conversation could somehow seem to mean much more. We simply talked about the weather, about the cold and how we all couldn’t stand it anymore, but in a way, we both seemed to know that seemingly pointless conversation does have a point.

It’s not simply what you say or how you say it. It’s not simply talking as if you care. It’s simply talking, making noise, filling a void that would normally be filled with silence. So don’t let go of the mundane talk. It’s very much needed. Sometimes I like just nodding my head and chewing the minutes with weather-talk as if sitting in a rocking chair with an afternoon of rocking behind me.

8:40. As I opened the gate to the Molly Michie Preschool, the place was deserted. The playground was covered with a blanket of snow. I cautiously made my way to the back, went down the stairs, only to find the door locked and the inside as much deserted as the outside.

What was going on? This was my first day to volunteer and there was absolutely no one there. Maybe I was too early. I made my way out to the front, found a nice patch of sun, and then waited. 8:50. 8:55. By 9:00, the time the preschool was supposed to start, I was feeling pretty confused. What if there was a back entrance I didn’t know about? What if my watch was wrong? What if they were on a field trip or something? What if…

Finally, I saw a man and his daughter get out of their car and make their way over to playground. Maybe if I just followed them, I could figure this whole thing out. But as it turned out, he was just as confused as I was. Finding the door locked (there was no secret entrance), he asked me where everyone was. As his daughter ran onto the snowy playground, he made a few calls. “Man, are you serious?? School is cancelled today? Man, I had no idea!”

Listening to him, my heart sank. I was so excited for my first day, not to mention the fact that I had been awake since 7:45 on a Friday morning. As soon as his daughter heard us talking, she ran over and demanded to know why school was cancelled. It was supposed to be their Valentine’s Day party! She was dressed from head to toe in pink and red and showed me her bag with all of her Valentine’s Day cards. They were supposed to tye-dye t-shirts! And get candy! And now she wasn’t going to get to give her card to Joshua!

I was just as upset as she was. I had forgotten how much I loved Valentine’s Day as a kid. Having our Valentine’s Day party in elementary school was one of my favorite days of the whole year. I was always one of those kids who refused to buy Valentine’s cards from the store, and insisted on spending hours hand-making each card for my friends in my class. And I loved tye-dying too!! Her dad watched my face, and said, “You can’t cry too! I already have one kid to deal with!”

As I said goodbye to the pair of them and made my way back to dorms, I realized that even though I was upset to be missing out, I was so excited to go back. I had just gotten a little taste of my next Friday mornings and I was already looking forward to getting up and having fun. My life right now has been hectic and busy, but now I have time in my week to slow down, have fun, and be a kid again. Just as she was now looking forward to Monday when they would reschedule their Valentine’s party, I was looking forward to the next Friday, when I could have fun too. Sometimes volunteering doesn’t work out, and not everything goes as planned. But all that means is that it will be even better the next time.

I could not make it into Trinity Nursing Home this week due to the lovely but inconvenient white precipitation that makes everything white but blank at the same time. So I apologize, but I think this week is a perfect time to talk about the meaning of volunteering. I know. This is a forever-clichéd, over-emphasized, over-dramatized subject with lovely catch-phrases and taglines like volunteering is not only for others, but for yourself, and I do good because it makes me happy to see other people happy, etc. I don’t intend to negate these lovely nuggets of volunteer-idealism, for they should forever be held in the hearts of those who serve. But I also find these nuggets, in their expansive generality, to be mildly inconsequential and blank when used for specific instances of human-to-human aid.

This past semester I volunteered at Trinity Nursing Home, and my job was simply to provide company to one grandmother in particular, listening to her stories, listening to her playing the piano, listening to her talk to her friends. I was her listener, her designated Sony deep dish, receiving ancient signals as best I could and interpreting their messages in my head.

Sometimes I would regurgitate the static and try to meld the generational divide with comments like, “Oh yes, well my mom does that too…” and even diving in with, “Oh well, I remember my grandma telling me that..” And these little moments of verbal interaction were always well-received by my designated grandmother, for if she heard right, she would smile in agreement and continue on to the next subject. She was my designated “smiler.” And these moments made me not think why I was volunteering, rather it made me think about the diversity of human character in this world.

Here is a lady who has a wealth of personal experiences, like we all do, and it is just terribly exciting to catch just a glimpse of her life in conversation, to receive just freckles of wisdom from her long journey. And it is this excitement in what may seem a mundane, blank conversation that makes me want to come back to Trinity, want to volunteer. It isn’t because I pocket a general mantra- do good and good will come to you- rather, it is because volunteering brings about individual, personal, exciting experiences that reveal not necessarily the commonality in us all, but rather, the unique differences that define us all.

And so, it is funny how white snow, with all its blanketing and homogenous features, can prevent me the volunteer experience, one that is heterogeneous and specific, unique.

I am a first year student new to Madison House and I am currently involved in Holiday Sharing. Making the transition from high school to college has been pretty tough. I came from a small high school where it was easy to stay busy and involved. I spent a lot of time doing community service; it meant so much to me in high school, and more than anything, I wanted to stick with it here. One of the things that has made my transition easier has been my involvement in Holiday Sharing. I went into this program not really knowing what to expect, but so far, I have appreciated every minute of it.

My absolute favorite part was something new to the program this year: going down to the Salvation Army’s store and signing up families to participate in the Angel Tree Program. We went on a Friday, the last day available for families to sign up. Although these were not the specific families that Madison House sponsors, it was still an amazing opportunity to meet people who would benefit from our help. The process seemed a little difficult at first, but after observing a few other volunteers, we got the hang of it and had one on one interaction with the mothers and fathers who needed help this Christmas. Most of the people we saw were extremely grateful for our help and it was so amazing to see how much these parents cared for their children. One man, a father of four young children, came in initially without the proper documents needed to sign up. However, instead of giving up, he came back later with everything filled out and ready to go, just to make sure his kids had something to open for Christmas. His dedication and love for his kids made such an impact on me, and made me realize how important the Holiday Sharing program is to these families.

Often times, it is difficult to feel like I am making a difference, especially when I do not see or interact with the people that need help. After going down to help families sign up, I know that I am making a difference. My office hours this past week included working at the holiday trees located around grounds and asking people to sign up to donate a gift. Looking at the snowmen on the tree, with items like a baby blanket, clothes, toys for boys and girls, and gift cards, I felt a connection with these gifts written on paper and the faces I saw at the Salvation Army. These people really needed our help, and it made me so much more passionate when I explained the program to students passing by, and satisfaction when someone decided to buy a gift. I know how happy these kids will be when they have gifts to open for Christmas and I am especially looking forward to distribution day, when the families that we sponsor through Madison House come to pick up their gifts. I can’t wait to see the smiles on the kids’ faces, that would not have been possible without the love of their parents and the spirit and help of volunteers.

My first semester of first year, I learned what it felt like to value a volunteer experience. In high school, I had done the requisite community service hours to “look good” for college applications, but never enjoyed the experience because it felt like a chore and I had little interest in spending my Saturday making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for six hours.

In my first weeks at Migrant Aid, I was blown away by the experience of “service learning.” I felt that I was providing a valuable service to Elizabeth as I helped her work through history readings, but I was also deeply challenged every week to learn how to be an effective teacher and to learn about this large migrant community right outside the bubble of U.Va. I also felt that Elizabeth and her family were providing me with an enormous service through their endless positive energy that always started my week right, even with the two hours of travel involved.

The hardest experience I had during that semester when Elizabeth’s mother asked me to translate a letter she had received. As I stumbled through the explanation, I had to tell her that the family’s application to Medicaid had been denied because they had not resided in the United States for five continuous years. The shamed look on her face as she quickly retrieved the letter is something I will never forget. That night deeply affected me, and was the first time that I truly understood the plight of the underprivileged in my own country.

As the holiday season approaches, it’s impossible not to notice a change in our surroundings. Christmas ads flood the commercial breaks on TV before we’ve even reached Thanksgiving. Red and green goodies line the shelves of drug stores, toy stores, Hallmark stores, grocery stores, Target, Walmart, our closets. And of course there are all of those holiday carols that you can’t help but memorize if you go out in public at all during the months of November and December. But beyond all these changes, there are other things happening that we don’t notice.

We at UVA are lucky. We can afford all that red and green. We are so used to affording it, in fact, that we don’t even notice the fact that we can afford it. To us, the Christmas carols are background noise, and colorful red-and-green Hershey kisses and cheesy ornaments are available at our disposal. We walk past them in CVS without even realizing their flamboyance, without recognizing that people sit just outside who have not been given holiday chocolates in a long time, people who may have never received a Christmas card.

It’s easy to ignore all of this inequality because we are not actively looking for it. How many days did it take for you to pass through Newcomb or O Hill, in a rush to grab a meal as you run to wherever you’re headed next, before you noticed the humble tree that sits by the card swipe, displaying the modest holiday wishes of some local citizens who do not have the luxury to ignore their financial situations? How many days passed in between your noticing the tree and actually stopping to take the time to read the requests on the paper ornaments? I know I signed up to purchase a gift, but I didn’t do it the first day. And when I finally did take time to stop, I wasn’t sure I wanted to commit to the project, and maybe you weren’t either. We’re college students; our families may help us out a lot, but our personal bank accounts might be pretty slim, and we already have to buy gifts for our own loved ones, so why should we take on the extra burden of buying a gift for people we don’t know?

It’s not a hard question to answer. The requests on the tree are very different from our own. For the holidays, none of us are asking for a new pair of socks, bath soap, or twenty dollars for groceries. Many of us could call home on any given day for these things, or buy them ourselves. If nothing else, we need to recognize that the holiday season does not provide the same experience for everyone. If nothing else, we need to read the requests on that tree and acknowledge what, exactly, it means that some mother here in our city is asking anyone – any stranger – to help her buy clothes for her child at Christmastime. Whether or not someone else will help her, whether or not we believe she is justified in asking, the fact is the same. What does it mean if we dismiss this as having nothing to do with us?

The holidays are largely about family, about bringing people together. They’re as perfect a time as any to try to bridge the disconnect that exists in our community – the disconnect between those who can grab the red and green Hershey kisses off the shelf as an afterthought, and those who sit outside, hungry. Do we care about these people who go hungry, who watch us eat? If the answer is “of course we care,” do our actions reflect this?

It’s true that the tree is easier to ignore. But attach a face to each one of those little slips of paper, and what you’re faced with is a person who is asking for your help. Walking past it, then, is doing more than just ignoring – it’s saying no to their plea. When you look at it from that angle, it’s easy to tell why we all should respond with a resounding yes. We should do so because we can.

My hands trembled a bit in the elevator as I held a basket of paper pumpkins, the faces on the construction paper were scrawled heavily by inexperienced sharpie users – young children at a local church. Each pumpkin had a different face and I had been instructed to deliver them to the entire hospital, an intimidating feat, which I admit I left without fully completing. Looking back, those pumpkins were really cute! At the time, I was too nervous about the task at hand. The elevator binged, alerting me that my ascension skyward had ended. I stepped out, adjusted my ill-fitting smock and walked to the entrance of the unit.

I thought of that Liberty Mutual commercial where one person’s good deed aids the entire community. (If you don’t know what I am talking about, please check it out at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=frpp6DjCaJU&feature=related )

With a bit more pep in my step, I walked into the first room.

A woman with a newborn on her chest told me loudly to come in; she had to talk loudly to be heard over the woman talking on the telephone and the court show on television. I carefully chose the prettiest of the scary construction paper pumpkins and walked to her bedside. I explained that young volunteers wanted to spread the spirit of the holiday by giving everyone mini pumpkins. She smiled broadly and took the pumpkin, showing it off to everyone in the room. The baby squirmed and I snuck a peek at his little face. She gushed about how sweet the gesture was and I left the room down 1 pumpkin, with 40 more ugly faces longing to be given away.

The rest of the delivery went smoothly; each pumpkin got its proper oohs and aahs! The bottom of the basket still couldn’t be seen among the pile of pumpkins and I contemplated skipping my Spanish test in order to finish my assignment. I felt like the Santa Clause of Halloween. Sometimes I forget how important it is to display small acts of kindness!

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