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Madison House responds to COVID-19 with additional programming for a virtual age

For an organization dedicated to serving others in an interpersonal manner, the Madison House has had to adapt to a virtual world.

Once conditions allow it, in-person volunteering will resume as normal, and volunteers will be able to re-establish vital face-to-face connections.
Once conditions allow it, in-person volunteering will resume as normal, and volunteers will be able to re-establish vital face-to-face connections.

Madison House, the independent volunteer center for students at the University, has continued to organize service work throughout the pandemic, confronting challenges of volunteer work in a virtual world and adapting programming to respond to the Charlottesville community’s most pressing needs.

Rollin Johnson Jr., director of program management at Madison House, has been overseeing the transition of programs from an interpersonal premise to a largely virtual one, along with Director of Community Engagement Rose Cole. According to Johnson, Madison House has made a concerted effort to think about and manage the workload that virtual volunteering presents and has come up with many ways to adjust the responsibilities of student leaders and volunteers.

Johnson and the larger Madison House community view the organizations and people they serve as partners with whom they must act to keep the community and volunteers as safe as possible.

The COVID-19 pandemic has provided program directors at Madison House with an opportunity to think about the accessibility of programs and to reevaluate student and community participation, according to Johnson. New programs have included closer connections to the University Equity Center in order to promote this accessibility. 

Third-year Batten student Trevor Doiron began volunteering with Madison House during his first semester at the University in fall 2017 through a Madison House community partner called The Haven, a day center for the unhoused and disadvantaged members of the Charlottesville community. Doiron is now the head program director for Hoos Assisting with Life Obstacles, an organization which oversees eight service programs that seek to address the issues of hunger, homelessness, unemployment and other life obstacles in the Charlottesville community.

All eight of the programs Doiron oversees have had to go through serious adaptations in order to serve the community during the pandemic. 

Some of their programs — such as bringing food to community members’ cars — have been eliminated all together, while others have transitioned to a virtual format or socially-distanced tasks such as dropping off food without interaction between volunteers and the community.  Limits on transportation also restricted the community’s accessibility, as carpools and public transportation are no longer available for individuals who need them. Another challenge Doiron spoke about involved establishing trust between volunteers and community members.

“We are thankful that some of the programs have been able to switch to a virtual format, but a huge part of the volunteer experience is relationships. It is extraordinarily difficult to form a relationship with someone through a screen.” Doiron said. 

Once conditions allow it, Doiron hopes that in-person volunteering will resume as normal, and volunteers will be able to re-establish these vital face-to-face connections. Still, volunteer work in the face of the pandemic has been important for the communities Madison House serves. 

“I think the pandemic has underscored the purpose of our work,” Doiron said. “We are here to serve and meet the moment.” 

Daniel Shapiro — head program director for HELP Line, a 24/7 free and confidential telephone hotline serving Albemarle County and students of the University of Virginia — has encountered similar challenges in balancing the safety of volunteers with a desire to keep lines open. 

When the pandemic first started, Shapiro explained, HELP Line had to shut down their service because of restrictions that meant volunteers couldn’t be in the call room. This past semester, though, they’ve been able to open again with reduced hours and get volunteers into the physical spaces. 

“Last semester we were open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. and now we are open from 9 a.m. to 12 a.m., which is shorter than our typical 24/7 service,” Shapiro explained. “We hope to be able to return to 24/7 next year, but I’m just grateful that we have been able to provide this service at all.”

For Shapiro, the past year and the challenges the pandemic has presented have made it clearer than ever to him that the work of student volunteers is important during difficult times. 

“So many people rely on volunteer organizations for support, whether it be for mental health or food insecurity or tutoring, and it has been really unfortunate that so many programs have been unable to offer this assistance due to COVID,” Shapiro said.

When asked about how he would advise other organizations to adapt to a virtual environment, Shapiro said that “being open to new ideas” and “being flexible” are extremely important. For the HELP Line, this included adapting training to an online format. 

“It’s really important to keep your cool and realize that we’re all doing the best we can,” Shapiro said. 

Third-year College student Suchet Taori began volunteering as part of the Madison House Medical Services in fall 2018, his first semester at the University. 

“As someone who aspires to work in healthcare down the road, I was initially drawn to this role to help assist my community, provide support to hospital workers and better understand how a hospital functions from the inside,” Taori said. 

Taori’s duties included greeting, escorting and transporting patients in the Charlottesville community to and from appointments, which “expanded [his] knowledge and views of various cultures and socioeconomic statuses.” 

When the pandemic struck and Taori was no longer to perform his duties, he sought other ways to serve the Charlottesville community. Taori worked with the Blue Ridge Health District on a virtual phone-calling outreach program to alert local businesses about COVID-19 restrictions and regulations. He also began to curate spreadsheets of information about local businesses in order to make distribution of information easier in the future. 

Now, Taori co-leads a similar program with another University student where he coordinates logistics between University volunteers and the BRHD in a vaccine outreach program. His team of volunteers has reached out to local businesses and encouraged them to register for the vaccine as well as building upon Taori’s compilation of local business information. 

“While other organizations could have waited the pandemic out before resuming volunteering operators, Madison House swiftly sprung to action,” Taori said. “By developing virtual infrastructure and sharp and quick logistical planning, they were able to put on initiatives and programs that have had widespread impact.” 

In the future, Taori thinks that programs can learn from their experiences with pandemic-conditions, including further utilizing technology will be beneficial in supplementing program implementation and planning. Virtual meetings, for example, have advantages for attendees as they can join from wherever they are in the world without having to worry about transportation or the logistics of getting to an in-person meeting. 

Overall, Madison House has withstood the obstacles presented by the pandemic and adapted programming to respond to the needs of partner organizations. For Johnson, who views Madison House’s goal as being “the best partner [they] can be,” this means addressing the pressing needs of the community, including food insecurity and health-oriented issues.

Even through a screen, volunteers like those on Taori’s team have been working to get vital information about COVID-19 to local businesses, talking to students struggling with mental health and delivering food to areas where the pandemic has exacerbated food insecurity. 

“We are part of the broader Charlottesville community … That comes with responsibility,” said Johnson. "Serving the community in a way that keeps all of its members safe is what it means to be good and great.”