Season of Hope calls on students to donate gifts

With less than two weeks left before winter break, many students are beginning to hibernate in preparation for upcoming papers and exams. But a new charity on campus is hoping Yalies will remember needy families in New Haven before students emerge from the whirlwind of finals to return home to celebrate the holiday season.

Season of Hope Organization, a charity founded this year by Audrey Webster ’09, will provide presents to 48 local families, each of which is assigned to an undergraduate class in Yale’s 12 residential colleges. Each family will receive items on its wishlist as well as other gifts purchased with money that Yale students donate to SOHO.

Webster said this year is a trial run for the organization that will highlight fundraising strengths and weaknesses.

“What I’m hoping to get out of it is to know what we did well and what we need to improve on,” she said. “We want make it a tradition so that every … year, people will know what’s happening and people will want to get involved in it.”

After receiving official approval for the charity, Webster sent an e-mail to the entire student body at the end of October outlining her plans and asking for representatives to help run the program in each college.

She then contacted Donna Foster, housing director at Columbus House, an organization that provides housing to homeless and low-income New Haven residents, and Foster selected recipient families based on need. Although families with children were given priority, religion and age were not factors in the selection process, Webster said. Since the families range from a single 25-year-old man to a mother with eight children, the gift-giving responsibilities of residential college classes vary widely.

Webster said that if there is an overabundance of donations from a particular class, the organization will take some of the money and distribute it to a family assigned to another class in the same residential college. Students have a choice of buying the family’s requested presents on their own or donating money that SOHO organizers will use to purchase gifts. On Dec. 16, the charity will hold a wrapping day in Dwight Hall and then drive the gifts to Columbus House to be distributed.

Webster said a major goal of this year’s effort is finding out what methods are best for soliciting participants. Geraldine Gassam ’07, who bought four CD players for the family assigned to seniors in Timothy Dwight College, said she decided to donate after receiving a follow-up e-mail reminding students that there were only two weeks left to participate. But many other students said they have not read Webster’s e-mails because they did not recognize SOHO as a student-run Yale charity.

“I didn’t know what SOHO meant,” Elizabeth Clark-Polner ’09 said. “I get so much spam that I just wrote it off. I think they need to make it more clear what they’re doing.”

In addition to e-mailing students, SOHO has established a Web site where students can view the wish lists of individual families, as well as the organization’s further suggestions for gifts. Fewer than 10 people have posted responses, but Webster said she has received over 100 e-mails from students offering to donate and asking who to contact for their college.

SOHO has already reached out to other groups for help, including the Pierson College Council, which will set up collection boxes in the Pierson dining hall. Alexandra Copper ’09, vice president of SOHO, said that the although the level of engagement in each college varied, on average the coordinators assigned to manage giving for each college have been succsesful in their outreach efforts.

“Canvassing door-to-door, especially at a time like this with exams coming up, it’s expected that not everyone is going to be interested,” she said. “But the level of excitement of those who are interested makes up for it no matter what.”

But some SOHO representatives said they felt the charity was not organized in targeting students.

Caroline Downing ’10, a Pierson coordinator for SOHO, said she has gone door-to-door in Lanman-Wright to fundraise and explain the charity’s mission to fellow freshmen. While only one person refused her request for a donation, she said she was frustrated that the organization had not met as a group or posted fliers on campus.

Webster said it is important to realize that all of the families SOHO will be supporting this holiday season are from the local area, and students’ efforts will have tangible results.

“All of us get confronted by poverty every day, especially around Broadway and Chapel streets,” she said. “As Yale students, here we are on the other side of the gap. I think that people feel a need to give back, but not in a situation where they are just giving their money to random organizations.”

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