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More than a toy drive, hospital staff and students share uncommon compassion

The season of giving amplifies VCU Health and VCU’s commitment to support the community through addressing unmet needs.

Three photos included in the graphic, including one of a group of students who packed shoe boxes with gifts for children abroad, one with a patient in a wheel chair and santa, and a coat drive box Generosity is in full swing throughout all of VCU Health and Virginia Commonwealth University. (VCU Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

By Kristy Fowler, Sara McCloskey and Kim Van Sickel

Shoeboxes filled a room at the Virginia Commonwealth University's School of Pharmacy, waiting to be stuffed with donated toys and household items for children around the world.

While these were just shoeboxes to his classmates, they were a welcomed sight and warm memory for Paul Massawe, a fourth-year Pharm.D. student and a member of the on-campus organization Christian Pharmacist Fellowship International.

“It reminded me of exactly what was going on in my mind and how I felt while opening the box given to me as a child in 2004. I felt pure joy, happiness and excitement,” Massawe said.

As a young child growing up in the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro, in the town of Moshi, Tanzania, he was given one of these shoeboxes – covered in green and red wrapping paper – while on a field trip to a larger city. Inside, there were little perfumed soaps, a container of shampoo and a toy elephant that made sounds when you pressed a button.

“For most children receiving these boxes, it will be the first and maybe the only Christmas gift that they will open. Just like it was mine,” he said.

The gifts assembled by VCU pharmacy students and the one Massawe received are part of a project from the nonprofit group Samaritan’s Purse. Instead of receiving a bundle of gifts at the holidays, Christmas for Massawe’s family was about faith and good deeds. His mother took him to church, and they spent time visiting sick or hospitalized friends and family with gifts, fruit and other food.

Young man with a pharmacy white coat smiles for the camera.

Paul Massawe is in his fourth year of the Doctor of Pharmacy program at VCU School of Pharmacy. (VCU School of Pharmacy)

Massawe’s mother had a collection of sayings that have stuck with him even though he is far away from home. The saying she repeated most often was “Kidogo kidogo hujaza kibaba,” which translates to “little by little fills the cup.” In other words, every step counts — no matter how small.

“I remember as a kid, I would randomly take my own clothes or items and give them as a gift to kids who are less fortunate or don’t have clothes,” Massawe said. “I am always happy when God uses me to be a blessing to others.”

Serving others has extended to other parts of Massawe’s life. He worked as a missionary, teaching science in schools and providing medical supplies and education around disease prevention. And upon finding his way to Richmond several years ago, he has continued to volunteer through Christian Pharmacist Fellowship International – making every step count.

“After graduating, I will be looking for opportunities to participate in Christmas box preparation and packing through Samaritan’s Purse or other organizations near me,” said Massawe, who is now in his final year in the Doctor of Pharmacy program. “I will be going to Tanzania this Christmas with my family. In part of sharing the Christmas experience, we will be giving about eight Christmas boxes we have prepared to kids.”

Boxes filled with toys and bikes line up a storage room at CMH

As part of the Holiday Angels Loving Others (HALO) program, VCU Health Community Memorial Hospital team members buy gifts for children in need who are part of Mecklenburg and Brunswick Social Services. (VCU Health Community Memorial Hospital)

An extra layer of giving in South Hill

Generosity is in full swing throughout all of VCU Health. From stopping on the side of the highway to help a family after a vehicle crash to checking up on a former coworker in a comaVCU Health Community Memorial Hospital team members show their compassion every day for patients and their families.

The holiday season brings out an extra layer of giving from South Hill, as seen by the many donation drives organized by team members.

Wendy Farley, director of radiology, has been helping organize a program called Holiday Angels Loving Others (HALO) for eight years. CMH team members get a list of children in need from Mecklenburg and Brunswick Social Services and buy gifts for them.

Originally started by a former housekeeping director more than ten years ago, many team members have helped along the way, including many employees and medical staff. A few employees have been a part of the program every year since its inception including Ursula Butts, Kim Walker, Brenda Palmore and Wendy Farley. Local businesses, community members and churches also partner with CMH to meet the vast needs of the community.

“HALO is a regular part of my Christmas tradition,” Farley said. “I have to ensure those children are covered before I can enjoy time with my family and friends!”

Over at the extended-care facility, The Hundley Center, a tree filled with little tags stands tall in the entrance way. Team members can pull one of those tags off, but the gifts don’t go to children. The presents are distributed to residents during a special visit by old Saint Nick.

“This is a big hit with our residents,” said Jane Allen, a social worker at the Hundley Center who helps to organize the “angel tree” with the activities department. “Some of our residents don’t have family nearby and this makes them feel loved.”

November and December aren’t the only time of year CMH team members make an effort to provide this extra layer of support for their patients, extended-care residents and community.

Donation drives of all sorts go on throughout the year in South Hill. You may see dietitian Jennifer Hale in the cafeteria collecting clothes for those in need in the community. For example, she organized an effort to gather socks in October is coined “Socktober” for unhoused residents. Currently, Hale is hosting a winter coat drive to donate gently used coats.

According to a 2022 U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development report, half a million people experience homelessness nationwide. Mecklenburg county is no exception. As of 2022, the U.S. Census Bureau reported 15.7% of the county is in poverty.

“The department that collects the most coats and decorates the best donation box will each receive a pizza party,” Hale said. “We’re creating a fun atmosphere of teamwork and helping others stay warm over the winter.”

Crowd of people under a tent with raffle prizes.

VCU Health Tappahannock Hospital hosts its annual Holiday Basket raffle in early December. (VCU Health Tappahannock Hospital)

Holiday raffle brings Tappahannock team members and community together

In early December, VCU Health Tappahannock Hospital hosted its annual Holiday Basket raffle to raise money for the WRAR Christmas Wishes and the MCV Foundation. The amount raised in raffle sales is shared equally between these two charities.

The raffle prize packages are all created and donated by VCU Health team members. This year’s haul included a movie night themed basket, featuring a 50-inch television and movie snacks; a seasonal basket with items that highlight every season and tickets to sporting events and shows; a summer fun basket with Tommy Bahama beach chairs and various items for fun in the sun.

For those interested in cash, there were a couple of raffle items that gave away up to $500. The raffle item that drew the most tickets included a 36-inch Blackstone Griddle with steaks, bacon and accessories, donated by the hospital’s Food Services team.

The annual in-person event brings together team members and the community, featuring a number of family activities and a visit from Santa Claus.

“It’s great to see the generosity and creativeness of our team and what they pull together through personal and community donations,” said Liz Martin, president of VCU Health Tappahannock Hospital. “We always enjoy hosting our team, their families and the community for a festive event that helps very worthy causes.”

WRAR Christmas Wishes provides Christmas gifts to children and families in need due to medical and/or financial hardship. The MCV Foundation funds will be dedicated to starting a Dogs on Call therapy dog program at VCU Health Tappahannock Hospital.

All across VCU Health, our team members and VCU students are finding ways to give back to their neighbors and people across the world showing how every step counts – no matter how small.

Mary Kate Brogan and Greg Weatherford contributed to this story.