Helping Hands — Spring 2007

Give Thanks Give Back volunteers (from left) Jennifer Lee, Arts & Sciences Class of ’09; Julie Knight, Business Class of ’09; and Hannah Costigan, Arts & Sciences Class of ’09, are among the many students giving their time and treasure to help make the annual community service program a success.

Students Find Joy in Giving to Area Families

by Terri Nappier

The spirit of the holiday season comes early to Washington University. For two Saturdays in November, Umrath Lounge looks like the North Pole with hundreds of boxes of gifts and wrapping paper strewn about. “A scooter for Jimmy, a dolly for Sue” resonates throughout the room as students, faculty, and staff come together to wrap gifts for Give Thanks Give Back (GTGB).

These “wrapping parties” are the culmination of yearlong efforts by students in Give Thanks Give Back. According to Katie Lombardi, GTGB cochair and Arts & Sciences Class of ’07 (psychology and drama): “At the wrapping parties, we get to see all the things that were collected; we get to see the project’s magnitude. And we’re wrapping gifts next to deans, professors, or other people from such groups as the Women’s Society. One of the most rewarding things for me is to see this eclectic group of people, representing the entire University community, come together for this effort.”

Since its inception in 2001, the mission of Give Thanks Give Back is to collect clothes, toys, school supplies, food, linens, and gift certificates for St. Louis families in desperate need. Each year, the United Way/St. Louis PostDispatch “100 Neediest Cases” program receives approximately 10,000 requests from area families to be sponsored during the holidays. Although all families receive some monetary assistance, only a small percentage gets “adopted,” receiving additional gift items. On average, in the last four years, the University’s Give Thanks Give Back program has adopted approximately 130 families each year. Family sponsors include floors of residence halls, fraternities and sororities, other student organizations, and academic and nonacademic departments.

To enhance efficiency, GTGB breaks its planning into semester segments. Each fall, GTGB executive board members, representing some 15 committees from publicity to internal operations to donations, recruit new students at the annual Student Activities Fair.

Mimi Schaffner, GTGB cochair and Arts & Sciences Class of ’08 (psychology) and Business Class of ’08 (marketing), says the fall is the busiest time for the group. “We try to get the basics set in the spring so that when we come back in the fall, we can immediately start working,” she says. “Our main priorities are to recruit freshmen for subcommittees, recruit sponsors, and get our name back in everyone’s consciousness.”

GTGB members hold a “kickoff” party in October, where individuals and groups can sign up to adopt a family. After hosting a followup information session regarding what gifts are appropriate per family, GTGB then waits a few weeks while University sponsors buy and collect items.

During the second week of November, sponsors drop off their gifts at the Campus Y—which graciously provides space every year for GTGB—and then GTGB students begin sorting items by family. If any one family member has more than another, GTGB students shop, using their Student Union funds, to create parity within each family.

After the items are sorted, they get wrapped. Give Thanks Give Back solicits volunteers from areas across the University to participate. “At the wrapping parties, there’s a holiday atmosphere complete with festive music and food,” Lombardi says. “You just come in, get a box, and wrap to your heart’s content. It is truly
a happy atmosphere.”

Once volunteers wrap all the presents and sort them by family, GTGB students load up a truck and make deliveries to a local socialservice agency, Grace Hill, with whom GTGB has worked for at least the last four years. “We ask the ‘100 Neediest Cases’ contact at the United Way for cases from Grace Hill. We have established a good working relationship with them, and it makes logistics go smoothly,” Lombardi says.

To recognize student and volunteer commitment, GTGB ends the fall semester with a small party to thank everyone for his/her work and to start thinking about activities for the next semester.

In the spring, the cycle starts anew, when GTGB holds its first meeting and selects new board members. Most of the major planning takes place in the spring, too: Student volunteers come up with lists of what needs to be done, breaking down tasks by the week. Everyone gets introduced to what each committee is responsible for as well as to one another, so the group can work together as a cohesive team the next fall.

“As cochair, I am responsible for overseeing half of the committees, and Katie is responsible for the other half,” says Schaffner. “Both of us came up through the ranks serving on various subcommittees and committees. Serving as cochair provides such a broad overview and allows us to work with so many other students to form a closeknit group. Although Katie will be graduating in the spring, I will serve as cochair again next year; we strive for as much continuity on the executive board from year to year as possible.”

In the end, members of GTGB desire to provide some comfort and joy to area families during the holidays. For these efforts, the group was recognized with the Office of Student Activities 2006 Excellence in Leadership Award for the student group with the “Most Community Impact.” The Excellence in Leadership awards are the primary means of honoring individuals or student organizations that exemplify the “best of leadership” within the Washington University campus community.

Lombardi sums up the spirit of the students, the organization, and of the season: “I love making community service one of my main priorities. I believe that we are very blessed with the education and opportunities given to us here at Washington U. What I love about Give Thanks Give Back is that it unites all of the Washington University community. It brings together the staff, faculty, and students in the common goal of helping the St. Louis community. It’s about helping make the holidays bright for as many as possible.”

Terri Nappier is the editor of this magazine.