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Annual Rake-a-Thon event returns to protect and support Southwood mobile home community

The community-wide charity event — run by Habitat for Humanity — brought in record numbers of volunteers this fall

Team members quickly found a spot in each yard to start raking and began clearing the yard in sections.
Team members quickly found a spot in each yard to start raking and began clearing the yard in sections.

After a one-year absence caused by the pandemic, the Habitat for Humanity of Greater Charlottesvile’s annual Rake-a-Thon returned this past Saturday to the neighborhoods and surrounding communities of the greater Charlottesville area for its eighth annual event. The event ran from 9 a.m. until 1 p.m. and concluded with an extended opportunity for fundraising through partnerships with popular eateries, including a selection from the Corner.

The program has been working diligently alongside their affiliate — Habitat for Humanity Club at the University of Virginia — all semester in order to bring the annual event back into full swing. The two affiliates have been successful in their mission to bolster community interest this Fall, registering 710 people with 525 from the University’s student and staff population. Local churches, businesses and other community members in the surrounding areas have also formed volunteer groups for Rake-a-thon. 

The logistics of the event are simple — community members offered donations to Habitat for Humanity’s yearly goal, and in exchange, volunteers raked their lawns. Habitat Charlottesville distributed rakes and materials to all the registered team leaders in the two days leading up to the event, and organized this year’s donations towards an ongoing project of theirs — Southwood

“This year, it's about the Southwood mobile home community, which is located just south of Charlottesville,” said Max Barte, fourth-year College student and president of Habitat for Humanity at U.Va. “The role that [Habitat has] taken on is really significant … The affiliate has basically taken on the role of a community land developer, which is not typical. Normally Habitat affiliates are building one-to-five homes. But we're talking about … an entire neighborhood.”

Habitat had a goal of raising $35,000 which they reached by 3 p.m. on Saturday, hitting $37,000. Since 2007 — when Habitat Charlottesville first purchased the land — over $25 million has been poured into stabilizing operations with the end goal of eventually returning ownership to the residents currently living there.

Prior to the event, Habitat Charlottesville sent a series of texts and short quizzes out to all of its volunteers. This project was put into motion by HUVA’s Education and Advocacy team who found it necessary that an educational program for this year's event be created. 

The quizzes taught volunteers about a wide selection of topics including the Cost of Home Campaign, housing inequity in Charlottesville and Mapping Charlottesville — topics all relevant to Southwood’s own history.

“If we have 700-plus volunteers … we just really want them to be able to take this time to also learn a little bit about why we are raising money for Southwood,” third-year College student Caitlin McSorley said. “And [we answer] ‘what is Southwood?’ and ‘why is this model’s such a revolutionary thing in Habitat for Humanity?’ It's kind of amazing it's happening in Charlottesville.”

In addition to local contributions, big corporations also sent sizable donations towards Habitat’s goal of continuing to redevelop Southwood into an inclusive and non-displacing community. Some of the most notable donations this Fall included State Farm with a $10,000 donation, United Bank who offered $3,000 and Virginia Housing with $2,500.

The annual charity event is by far Habitat Charlottesville’s most profitable project. This year the organization opted to join forces with local restaurants — in addition to their normal fundraising methods — who will donate a percentage of their proceeds to the organization and to Southwood.

“We're partnering with restaurants to do an additional small fundraiser,” Barte said. “We have [Brazos Tacos], we have [Roots Natural Kitchen] and Juice Laundry. So we're trying to encourage the volunteers to go out to those restaurants and  have lunch there [afterwards].”

On the morning of the event, students and community members alike met up with their pre-coordinated drivers and dispersed across the Charlottesville area to a total of 113 lawns throughout the four-hour window. While some teams remained on the smaller side, some of the University’s clubs had made this event their largest service effort of the year, including Club Swim at U.Va., who had 42 people registered. Following Muslim Student Association with 49 registrants, Club Swim had the second highest participation numbers of the day.

“I'm hoping you know, on club swim, that the volunteers go and enjoy themselves and get to get out in the community and feel like they're giving back a little bit,” McSorley said prior to the event’s start. “I'm really hoping that this event can raise some awareness for the major housing issues we have in Charlottesville …  I hope that [students] start to process what that means for the greater community with the University has just become so sprawled out, and we've slowly pushed people further and further.”

McSorley’s wish to see her volunteers having a good time within their hard-working efforts certainly came true. 

At their first set of yards Saturday morning, McSorley gathered her Club Swim team around her and gave them a quick talk before passing out rakes and trash bags. Team members quickly found a spot in each yard to start raking and began clearing the yard in sections. Some homeowners even offered their personal leaf blowers to help with trickier parts of the yard.

HUVA’s team — including Barte himself — took on a separate group of houses in downtown Charlottesville, working with smaller numbers but taking the same raking measures to ensure efficiency. A lot of effort went into figuring out where best to send teams depending on their number of participants prior to the event.

“I would say that it was successful,” fourth-year Engineering student Katherine Byrd said. “We had so many volunteers show up and we … did six lawns out of the 113 [lawns] that were signed up and we did that all in four hours. I also think that the community was very grateful.”

Byrd is a member of Club Swim and had yet to hear of Rake-a-Thon until it was brought to the forefront of discussion by McSorley. Her fellow club member, second-year Engineering student Marlee Reinhard, on the other hand, is a member of HUVA and furthers Byrd’s message on community support.

“I've been to a few Habitat for Humanity build days where we actually tear down the old houses [and] build the new ones,” Reinhard said. I know how much money and work goes into it and so we're very thankful for these donors. It's just nice to give back to them because they've helped Habitat for Humanity so much.” 

Reinhard also brings up the detrimental effects of a post-pandemic economy, as well as the general housing issues in and around the University.

“I think that it's very beneficial to the community because the Charlottesville community has — much like a lot of places now after COVID-19 — an affordable housing crisis,'' Reinhard said. “These donors really help out.”

As a member of Rake-a-Thon’s biggest team from the MSA, first-year College student Kaukab Rizvi was satisfied to see the operations full return after a year of pandemic cancellations.

“It was great, especially [since] last year because of COVID-19 Rake-a-Thon was unable to happen in the same way it usually does,” Rizvi said. “So this year, having the same strength and numbers that we usually do for the Rake-a-thon was incredible.”

The housing inequalities that Habitat Charlottesville works to counter are near and dear to Rizvi’s heart as shown through his passionate involvement, stemming all the way from highschool as a member of Habitat’s Youth Leadership Team. Rizvi encourages University students to get involved with the community around them, and stresses the importance of organizations such as Habitat Charlottesville for all community members.

Grounds can often feel like its own separate circle, but stepping out into surrounding neighborhoods and towns reminds us that we are a part of a much bigger community.

“Growing up in Charlottesville — and being someone that is a beneficiary of many of our  community's resources — giving back is really important,” Rizvi said. “The work that Habitat does in general, in terms of creating homes for people giving them the opportunity to own a home and also building neighborhoods that really feel like home. I think that's something that all of us students at U.Va. can relate to and can contribute to.”

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