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'Tis better to give than to receive

Even with Christmas and Winter Break just around the corner, it's hard to believe the trials of finals and research papers will ever end.

The significance of the holiday season is the farthest thing from the minds of many students and faculty as they grade exams, touch up final papers and scribble in blue books in three-hour increments before sitting back to a much-needed month-long break.

But for many students it's important to take the time to reflect upon the season's true meaning during the post-Thanksgiving, pre-Christmas bustle when it's easy to lose sight of those who are far less-fortunate.

That's why the University's Madison House provides students with the opportunity to participate in its Holiday Sharing program each year. Holiday Sharing is one of Madison House's oldest programs and has brightened the season for many of Charlottesville's disadvantaged families since the 1970s. The University and local community work with Madison House to provide food, gifts and gift certificates for families of two to eight individuals.

Third-year Commerce student Whitney Eck has dedicated her fall semester to the Madison House program since her first year at University. This year, however, she serves as the program's administrative director.

"I'm in charge of the families and sponsors but we are all pretty good about sharing the responsibilities of all the jobs," Eck said.

According to Eck, the program works as the intermediary between low-income families and members of the community who are able to make the season special by providing food or gifts.

"What drew me most to this program was that it drew so many aspects of the Charlottesville community together," Eck said. "Everyone that wants to get involved - there's a place for them in this program."

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She also explained that families are sponsored by student organizations, academic departments, the Greek system, local businesses and individual families.

After the Salvation Army sends Holiday Sharing a list of 80 to 100 eligible families, approximately 35 program volunteers work to ensure that each family is provided with a holiday package. People looking to brighten the season for those who might see this time of year as a financial strain, may choose to sponsor a family by providing a package. They also may donate in another way.

"On Dec. 8, the families come to pick up their packages, Eck said. "It's a festive holiday atmosphere - we even have a Santa and Christmas tree. It really helps you to see a more broad and important part of the season."

Madison House volunteers have office hours for two hours each week in order to speak with sponsors, answer questions and contact area businesses. Local churches often place notices in their weekly bulletins and Charlottesville businesses seem more than willing to get involved. Some may sponsor individual families while others give money, gift certificates or donations ranging from toys to wrapping paper to fresh loafs of bread.

The program's success is obvious in the sheer number of participants, many of whom return each year. It's common to find both families who register with the Salvation Army each year and sponsors who return to contribute packages and donations. It's also common for first-year students, with whom the program is very popular, to remain with the program three or four years.

One such participant is Allison Klass, a second-year College student. After sponsoring a family with her Metcalf hall-mates last year, Klass is participating again as a program volunteer and family sponsor.

"My old RA brought the idea to us last year," Klass said. "This year I got my old hall and my old RA to do it. It's a good way to get together as a group."

Klass and 12 of her friends are each contributing money for a single package.

"You have to spend at least $25 on each person or individual, three meals for everyone in the family to eat, and also a $20 gift certificate to a local grocery store," Klass said. "That's for a two to three person family."

For many students like Klass, the program is a great way to keep sight of what truly is important at this time of year.

"It's a great way to see what the holidays are all about. Especially in the middle of exams."

The program also gives students perspective on the Charlottesville community set apart from the University.

"I think a lot of times we just don't realize what happens out in Charlottesville," Klass said.

The Holiday Sharing program director, third-year College student Elise Babbit is in charge of the program's donations and has said the response of the community is overwhelming.

"We actually had to turn away sponsors this year, and we just encourage those people to make donations inste ad," Babbitt said. "A lot of people donate large amounts of money -people who don't have the time to sponsor a family still do what they can."

The money supplied by donors allows Madison House to supplement the packages provided by sponsors.

"We get donations from a lot of businesses -- grocery stores, insurance agencies, local bread and bagel companies," Babbitt explained.

The program directors and student volunteers are impressed by the community's desire to help, the variety of donations, and all the different organizations wishing to get involved. The general consensus among volunteers seems to be that we all have a responsibility to help the Charlottesville community during the holiday season.

"I've been with this program since my first year because I think it embodies ... the true sense of volunteering as it centers around giving," Babbitt said. "It's especially at Christmas time that you realize how much you indeed have and how so many people have so much less"