Three volunteers guide 11-year-old Jasmine as she rides a brown mare named Pearl. Xara Davies (Col ’20) walks on the horse’s left, offering instructions and placing her arm on Jasmine’s leg to keep her steady. They stroll in a paddock surrounded by green foothills in Crozet, gray dust floating behind Pearl’s clopping hooves. Davies is here each Saturday to volunteer with Charlottesville Area Riding Therapy, which teaches riding skills to individuals with special needs.
“OK—we’re gonna trot,” Davies tells Jasmine. “Hold on with both hands.”
The horse trots, the volunteers run—one in front, one on each side—and Jasmine beams from the saddle. Davies is smiling too. She connected with the riding therapy program in 2016 through Madison House, UVA’s student volunteer center, and is now a program director there. Celebrating its 50th anniversary in the 2019-2020 academic year, Madison House partners with more than 100 local schools, medical facilities and nonprofits, coordinating volunteers while also teaching students about leadership and giving back.
Roughly 3,000 students a year volunteer through Madison House. Nearly 40,000 have participated since the center opened in September 1969, according to Tim Freilich (Col ’93, Law ’99), executive director of Madison House and a volunteer there during his undergrad years. In 2018-19 alone, he estimates, students contributed more than 108,000 hours to local projects, from adopt-a-grandparent programs and teacher’s aide positions to patient-care roles at hospitals and free clinics.
Osman Nur (Com ’16) coached youth basketball as an undergrad through Madison House, and he says that experience equipped him to understand and manage differences among people. Now an associate with a venture capital and growth equity firm, he is “better at taking a step back and empathizing with different types of people to build a more cohesive, receptive and productive group dynamic,” he says in an email.
Catalina Perez (Batten ’20) plans to study law and says she’s gained invaluable experience as a Madison House program director at Charlottesville’s Legal Aid Justice Center, which provides legal representation to low-income individuals.
Because of Perez’s interest in the center’s immigrant clientele—she immigrated to the United States from Colombia—she has translated legal documents and meetings between lawyers and clients, even assisting with a lawsuit asserting that a juvenile correctional center was mistreating young immigrants.
Program directors such as Perez and Davies also recruit, train and supervise other volunteers. For many, it’s their first experience managing budgets and peers.
“Leading this group isn’t just delegating tasks and checking in to make sure everyone is making their hours,” Perez says. “My program in particular does an awesome job of putting all they have into making the biggest difference they can with each and every client.”
“You can’t learn this type of leadership through a textbook,” Freilich says. “The experience that our 300 student leaders get as they lead their peers is probably the most valuable thing that Madison House does.”