Volunteer core: ‘Tis the season to give back

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Volunteer firefighter and emergency medical technician Laura Hedger hopes more people realize they can train to become a volunteer firefighter. Photo: Amy Jackson Volunteer firefighter and emergency medical technician Laura Hedger hopes more people realize they can train to become a volunteer firefighter. Photo: Amy Jackson

The holiday season is a time when giving and sharing is on everyone’s mind. And that is especially true of volunteers who give their time and share their skills with numerous organizations in the community year-round. So many organizations rely on volunteers for not only day-to-day upkeep tasks such as touching up paint or mending fences but running the programs that make a difference in people’s lives.

So how do you find the right place for you? Resources such as the Center for Nonprofit Excellence, a 300-member organization that assists nonprofits with tools, training and connections or volunteermatch.org provide lists of organizations in the community that are always looking for helping hands. Another great resource is United Way-Thomas Jefferson Area, which runs our community’s Volunteer Center. The center manages www.cvillevolunteer.org, where individuals seeking volunteer opportunities are matched with local needs.

The best place to start is to think of what you love doing: reading, gardening, acting, raising a dog, cooking, working with children—and then find an organization that matches that. Any hobby or professional skill can translate into the volunteer arena. Here are few groups that rely on their army of volunteers as well as the people who donate their time and talents to give back to the community.

Seminole Trail Volunteer Fire Department

In one word, volunteer firefighter and emergency medical technician Laura Hedger describes the environment at the Seminole Trail Volunteer Fire Department: “robust.”

After an intense workout in the station’s gym and an impressively quick shower, she sits down at a long, marble table to talk emergency response while the rest of her crew prepares a company dinner in the kitchen behind her. The energy is boundless, and Hedger makes it clear that all the funny business that happens behind those walls has its time and place.

“We joke and play a lot,” she says. “We’ll laugh and there’s pranks that are pulled, but at the same time, when it comes to any sort of call, [you’ll see] an entirely different side of the crews.”

Hedger says dealing with people’s lives on a multiple-times-per-day basis seems to have that effect on people. Describing a recent traffic fatality incident—her first call responding as an EMT rather than a firefighter—she says, “You just immediately go into everything you’ve trained for” when that station siren starts to wail. In this case, that meant treating a patient found lying on the road while her fellow responders ripped the doors off a wrecked car in which two other people were trapped. One of those people died that night, and Hedger says you never get used to that kind of call.

“There’s a difference between someone who’s sick and you know they’re going to pass away and someone who’s immediately been taken from you,” she says.

With five crews of about 15 people each rotating every 12 hours during the week and working 48-hour shifts every fifth weekend, Senior Volunteer Firefighter Sean O’Connor says Seminole Trail is the busiest station in the county—and possibly the city, too—though their station covers the smallest response area. The volunteers have the same certifications as Albemarle’s paid firefighters, and out of about 80 members, around 50 percent are UVA students. This station has also recruited a higher percentage of females and minorities, he says, thanks to “forward-thinking chiefs.”

Hedger says she wishes more people realized that anyone can become a volunteer firefighter and that the intensive training is worth it. Though doctors and physicists have come through their station, you certainly don’t have to be one to join the team. After all, O’Connor says, you just have to “put the wet stuff on the red stuff and stay safe.” —Samantha Baars

BY THE NUMBERS

Volunteers: 80

Calls per year: 2,000

Calls per day: 6

Hours of training for
basic-level volunteer
firefighters: 210

Years the station has been
in existence: 38

Number of fire engines: 3

Meals on Wheels of Charlottesville/Albemarle

Meals on Wheels volunteers pack, seal and organize the meals for the volunteer drivers who serve 32 routes Monday through Friday. Photo: Rammelkamp Foto
Meals on Wheels volunteers pack, seal and organize the meals for the volunteer drivers who serve 32 routes Monday through Friday. Photo: Rammelkamp Foto

Meals on Wheels of Charlottesville/Albemarle serves 265 meals five days a week to homebound and in-need clients in Charlottesville and Albemarle County with the help of approximately 40 volunteers each day. Totally funded through donations, grants and fundraising, the nonprofit currently helps people from the age of 23 to 96—there’s no age or income limit on who can receive the meals, although 80 percent of clients are at or below the poverty level. Food accounts for half of Meals on Wheels’ budget; clients are charged for meals on a sliding scale based on income. About 70 percent of the meals are completely subsidized by the program.

The meals are prepared at UVA Hospital through a contract with the University of Virginia Health System, and a dietitian oversees the menus. Clients can choose diabetic, vegetarian, low-salt and other specialty meals as needed. After the food is prepared, it is brought each morning to the Meals on Wheels facility on Rose Hill Drive, where the food stays warm in a steam oven while volunteers pack the meals, seal them and organize them in cooler bags for the drivers to pick up.

But the organization does more than deliver food. It delivers cards and presents to clients on their birthdays, and it also gives Christmas presents and “blizzard bags” that contain non-perishable food in case of inclement weather. After receiving her birthday card, one client called to say how grateful she was—it was the only birthday wish she received that year.

“At the end of the day you feel like you’ve done something worthwhile,” Executive Director Leigh Trippe says.

Volunteer Kevin Kollar, a retired emergency room doctor, delivers meals four days a week (he averages about five routes a week). On this morning, it’s his first day back after returning a few days earlier from Haiti, where he volunteers at an outpatient clinic with the Haiti Mission Foundation.

At each stop Kollar not only delivers meals but chats with everyone, asking them how they are, if they need anything. When one client doesn’t come to the door, he makes a note to tell Meals on Wheels when he returns to the facility so staff can follow up. At another stop, he takes a woman’s garbage out for her. He knows which people on his route request meals be left in coolers by the door and which ones want him to come in for a moment to chat.

One elderly woman breaks into a big smile when she sees Kollar coming through the door after announcing himself. She knew he was going to Haiti and thought he wouldn’t be back for a few weeks.

“I’m so happy to see you!” she exclaims.

At another stop he listens as one of the clients explains that he’s a vegetarian but also is on a low-sugar diet and can’t eat the pasta that’s often included in his meal. Kollar assures him he’ll let Meals on Wheels know so they can accommodate his request.

“I do it because it needs to get done,” Kollar says about volunteering. “People are important.” —Jessica Luck

BY THE NUMBERS

Lunches delivered each day (Monday through Friday): 265

Delivery routes each day: 32

Current volunteer base: 250

Cost per meal: $5.50 (most clients receive meals for free or at a reduced cost)

PB&J Fund

Courtenay Evans, chef and culinary educator with the PB&J Fund, leads a cooking class for children. Photo: Beyond the Flavor
Courtenay Evans, chef and culinary educator with the PB&J Fund, leads a cooking class for children. Photo: Beyond the Flavor

Kids in the advanced cooking class at the PB&J Fund say kabobs, calzones, omelets, soups and bangers and mash are just a few of their favorite dishes they’ve learned how to prepare over the years.

At their home base—a full-sized professional kitchen on East Market Street—and several locations throughout the city, volunteers teach five different types of creative cooking classes for kids in an effort to help them learn their way around the kitchen.

Executive Director Emily Wampler says volunteers are crucial to the nonprofit, which started its cooking program in 2009, and each one brings a unique perspective or ability to connect with the students.

Volunteer Lisa Sheffield, for example, has served the organization for two years. She has a longtime interest in health and nutrition, along with encouraging kids to try new foods and make smart choices when it comes to their diets.

“I was frustrated at my children’s friends’ eating habits,” she says, calling their nourishment “the usual PB&J/mac-n-cheese/pizza diet.” In an effort to expose the children to new diverse choices, she’d prepare dishes made with foods such as leeks and beets. Now that her kids are grown and she has extra time on her hands, Sheffield says she was thrilled to find a way to get back in the kitchen with kids.

Rebecca Vang, a volunteer and global public health major at UVA, says she loves working at the PB&J Fund because her concentration at the university is childhood nutrition, and she’s passionate about cooking, too. Her favorite part about the gig is getting bossed around in the kitchen by the kids—“playing sous chef,” as she calls it.

“Some of my favorite memories are when he tells me what to do,” she says about one of the students in her class. “So he reads the recipe and is like, ‘Chop this,’ ‘Do this,’ and it’s cool to know that he’s growing and gaining confidence.”

At the most basic level, an Explorer starts to learn about culinary arts, nutrition, cooking math and kitchen safety, and by the time he has tested up to a level three, he’s running the show under close supervision by volunteers.

“I think we’re losing a lot of these basic life skills, like how to cook for yourself, how to plan a menu, how to have intuition in the kitchen,” says Vang, “and that a lot of times intimidates people from even going into it in the first place.” —Samantha Baars

BY THE NUMBERS

Students per week: 113

Volunteers per week: 28

Weekly classes: 9 (five different skill levels)

Recipes learned in 15 weeks of Explorers class: 21

The Paramount Theater

John and Theresa Metz, Anna Tatar and Van Cockcroft are four of the Paramount Theater’s more than 200 volunteers. Photo: Rob Garland
John and Theresa Metz, Anna Tatar and Van Cockcroft are four of the Paramount Theater’s more than 200 volunteers. Photo: Rob Garland

If you’ve ever seen a show at the Paramount, odds are you’ve been greeted by a friendly face who takes your ticket and perhaps helps you to the last coveted seat in the balcony section. What you might not have realized was exactly how paramount these individuals are to the theater’s success in thriving as a cultural hub for Central Virginia.

The historic Paramount Theater was originally constructed in 1931 as a grand movie palace and downtown destination. Roughly 40 years down the road, the Charlottesville landmark began to struggle and closed its doors in 1974. Fast forward to 1992—a group of community members purchased the building (under threat of demolition at the time), and the Paramount’s journey to restoration was underway.

Thanks to the efforts of these committed individuals, the theater was reopened in December 2004 as a nonprofit performing arts center. “The Paramount was truly brought back by the community, for the community,” says Director of Marketing Katherine Davis. “The vision [for the Paramount] was to again offer the theater as a home to our community, from high-caliber arts to educational programs for youth.”

This vision continues to be realized, with events that attract regional, national and even global attention while continuing to serve the local community. Of course, none of the theater’s triumphs would be possible without the continual support of community members—particularly the volunteer base.

“We could not put on any of the 250-plus public and private events that are held at the Paramount each year without the help of volunteers,” says Front of House Manager Jenny Hoye. “They are the first people to greet you as you walk through the doors of the theater, and they assist you with every aspect of your experience.”

Luckily, there are citizens such as Gene Haney and his wife, Evelyn, who are eager to be a part of the arts community and add another aspect of delight to every show-goer’s experience.

After retirement, the couple moved in 2009 to Charlottesville from Chicago to be closer to their grandchildren, and started volunteering at the Paramount the same year. The Haneys’ list of volunteer duties includes ushering, taking tickets, greeting patrons, serving concessions, assisting with mailings and often hosting donors and guests in The Founder’s Room. “We also several years ago assumed the responsibility for periodic cleaning of the two popcorn machines,” says Gene Haney. “We are known for that gig.”

The Haneys agree that making friends is a huge perk of the volunteering gig (Gene fondly remembers a chat with his idol, Kris Kristofferson). “Meeting new folks, hearing their stories, seeing the reactions of visitors to the grandeur of the theater, contributing to a very worthwhile endeavor—it’s all pretty terrific.” —Sherry Brown

BY THE NUMBERS

Age of the Paramount Theater: 84

Number of children served by Arts Education Program: 16,000 annually

Number of events since 2004: 1,300-plus

Active event volunteers: 200-plus

Number of events at the Paramount per year: 250-plus

Number of popcorn machines: 2

Live Arts

Daryl Bare says the volunteer program at Live Arts is welcoming to people with a variety of skill sets. Photo: Amanda Maglione
Daryl Bray says the volunteer program at Live Arts is welcoming to people with a variety of skill sets. Photo: Amanda Maglione

Ever wonder how much work goes into creating the elaborate worlds produced onstage? With everything from designing sets to making them, from ushering for shows and bringing them to life, there is a lot of work to be done. Enter: the dedicated and creative hands and minds of Live Arts volunteers.

Live Arts, which recently began its 25th anniversary season, is a volunteer-driven community theater that has given a home to various forms of drama, dance, comedy, music and performance art since its founding in 1990. The theater strives to put on high-quality shows in hopes of not only entertaining, but also forging and sharing a bond with the local community.

In its very nature, Live Arts is the community. Tracie Skipper, director of engagement at Live Arts, emphasizes the necessity of local participation in the company. “Live Arts would not exist without volunteers,” she says. “Directors, designers, builders, actors, visual artists, board technicians, ushers and teachers are all volunteers.”

With Live Arts’ commitment to the community, there’s little wonder that the volunteers return the sentiment with equal fervor and enthusiasm. Take Daryl Bray, for instance. She’s been a Charlottesville resident for about 25 years and a volunteer at Live Arts for just more than two. A long-held desire to paint sets and curiosity about the world of theater prompted Bray to take part in the monthly volunteer orientation at Live Arts one weekend. Bray was immediately comforted by the buzz of artistic chaos and an inviting atmosphere that she felt had been lacking in other theaters.

“Other attempts around the world of joining a theater always hit a dead end when it felt [like] a small clique-like crowd ruled the theater and outsiders felt like intruders,” she says. “Not at Live Arts! Tracie Skipper met us in the lobby and made everyone [feel] so welcome.”

Bray says that like most volunteers at Live Arts, she does a slew of tasks in assisting with shows. “I tend to stick close to the workshop and help with set design, construction and lots of painting,” she says. “Presently I am the property designer for the upcoming production of City of Angels, a 1940s detective comedy. [It’s] been fun and challenging collecting period pieces [like] old typewriters and large black telephones.” —Sherry Brown

BY THE NUMBERS

Productions since founding: 224

Current active volunteers: 250

Annual volunteers: 1,000

Age of youngest actor: 4

Charlottesville-Albemarle SPCA: Pet Therapy Program

Duke, an 8-year-old Chihuahua mix, visits local libraries and nursing homes as part of the Pet Therapy Team program. Photo: Courtesy SPCA
Duke, an 8-year-old Chihuahua mix, visits local libraries and nursing homes as part of the Pet Therapy Team program. Photo: Courtesy SPCA

There are few things in life that do as good a job in cheering a downtrodden soul as the calm and loving presence of an affectionate furry friend.

The Charlottesville-Albemarle SPCA’s Pawsitive Pet Therapy Team was founded in 2012 with the mission to provide professional and experienced pet-assisted activity to a number of places in the local community including hospitals, rehabilitation centers, assisted-living facilities, youth development centers and many others in the area.

Volunteer members and their certified therapy animals (dogs, cats and even rabbits) visit these facilities as a team after passing a Canine Good Citizen class and being approved by an accredited organization. “The SPCA PTT strives to provide services that will enhance the physical and psychological well-being of clients, as well as improve patients’ communications with family, fellow patients and staff,” says Chelsea Mitchell, marketing and promotions coordinator. “It’s a great way to bring animals and people together.”

Mitchell is part of one of the 15 teams in the growing program. “My therapy dog is a sweet 8-year-old Chihuahua mix named Duke who I adopted from Richmond Animal Care and Control five years ago,” she says. “We have been a certified team since the beginning of this year, and we love visiting local libraries and nursing homes.”

The certified SPCA Pet Therapy Teams brighten days at a number of approved care facilities and also provide fun and reading support at local libraries and schools. In doing so, the teams establish personal connections with clients and leave lasting impressions.

Mitchell recounts one visit to the local library where she and Duke met a little girl named Annie, who was terrified of dogs. “Her mom sat her down next to Duke and started petting him as Annie read with her mom. As the story progressed, Annie became more and more confident. Very cautiously Annie began to pet Duke and quickly realized that it was okay,” she says. “After finishing the story, Duke was sitting in Annie’s lap, and she told her mom that she was no longer afraid of dogs.” —Sherry Brown

BY THE NUMBERS

Therapy teams: 15

Years in operation: 3

Facilities in the current rounds: 12

Madison House

Charlottesville Area Riding Therapy (CART), based in Crozet, provides therapeutic riding to members of the community with mental or physical disabilities. Photo: Rammelkamp Foto
Charlottesville Area Riding Therapy (CART), based in Crozet, provides therapeutic riding to members of the community with mental or physical disabilities. Photo: Rammelkamp Foto

When UVA students hear “volunteer” they think of Madison House, a brick building on Rugby Road complete with white columns. A small sign with a bright yellow sun differentiates it from the fraternities and sororities that line the street, and serves as a calling card for all students looking to volunteer in the community.

Madison House was founded in the wake of Hurricane Camille in 1969 and since then has been the go-to place for student volunteers, who can choose activities at 168 different organizations, including walking dogs for the local SPCA, spending time with a younger “sibling” in the community, helping Latino immigrants learn English or helping out at a nearby hospital.

Rachel Winters, the director of community engagement at Madison House, has plans to add even more community partners in the coming year and says the organization’s most meaningful work is to connect UVA students to the community they live in.

“It gets them out of their academic bubble and gets them working with organizations that are tackling societal issues in a real way that are just down the way from us,” Winters says.

Charlottesville Area Riding Therapy (CART) and Let Me Run are two lesser-known opportunities through Madison House that nevertheless make a big impact on those involved.

CART provides therapeutic riding to members of the community with mental or physical disabilities, teaching them fine motor skills and developing trust with animals and volunteers. Both Kate Ferner and Catherine Green, the UVA student program directors for CART, began volunteering their first year at UVA and share a deep commitment to the program.

“It made me feel good to be doing something that I love and working with horses and knowing I was helping people a lot,” says Green. “It’s also really beautiful out there [in Crozet]. It just felt like an escape from UVA and just a good way to give back to the community.”

An average session lasts about an hour, and activities range from steering around cones, playing games such as Red Light, Green Light, completing memorization and concentration tasks, giving the horses a treat (a class favorite) and even singing songs from the Disney animated film Frozen.

Ferner says her favorite part of the program is seeing the students grow. “It’s very cool to watch how confident they become,” she says. “I think one of the most important things you can give somebody is confidence.”

Let Me Run, which just partnered with Madison House this year, is also closely tied to confidence and hopes to empower young boys through a seven-week training program.

Brian Lee, the student program director, says he chose to volunteer with the new program because he saw how valuable it was to local kids in the area.

“It’s just super beneficial to kids in need,” Lee says. “It not only gets them outside and encourages them to exercise daily, it also provides them with valuable life skills.”

With Let Me Run volunteers, the boys stretch, play active games and go for a run together. At the start of the year, the boys were running only a half-mile a practice, but they finished out the program November 7 at 3.1 miles by running in the 5K Run/Walk for Shelter for Help in Emergency. The seven-week cycle is set to restart in the spring.

“It was a great experience,” Lee says, “just seeing that all of these students really care about giving back. It’s encouraging to me that people are still that kind and generous to participate in volunteer service.”—Cara Salpini

BY THE NUMBERS

Different programs offered by Madison House: 168

Madison House volunteers per year: 3,179

Hours served by Madison House volunteers per year: 111,135

Horses in the CART program: 11

Boys participating in Let Me Run: 11

This article was changed on November 25 to correct Daryl Bray’s name.