Home Madison Growing “Badger Volunteers” program builds long-term relationships

Growing “Badger Volunteers” program builds long-term relationships


The Morgridge Center for Public Service’s Badger Volunteers (BV) program connected 800 UW-Madison students with local nonprofits and organizations, providing about 30,888 hours of volunteer service in 2018. 

“The cool thing about Badger Volunteers is that it was started by 40 students and has organically grown in the last ten years,” BV Coordinator Reuben Sanon said.

The program began in Spring 2008 when 40 students volunteered their time at four community partner sites in teams. The volunteers who completed 10 hours of service received a free concert ticket. Since then, the program has grown to now include about 90 community partner sites. 

These sites, focused on education, public health and sustainability, include organizations such as Centro Hispano of Dane County, MSCR, Options In Community Living, The River Food Pantry, Habitat for Humanity, TEENWorks Goodman Community Center, as well as many other organizations in the Madison area. Sanon said sustainability-focused organizations are often the smallest cohort due to time constraints for student volunteers. 

“We try to connect people on a human basis without always trying to solve it,” he said.

Kenneth Mui tutors a student at Bayview Foundation. Photo supplied.

The goal of BV is not for students to enter an environment as saviors but to listen and offer support to already existing programs. Sanon explained the program is designed to develop meaningful and consistent relationship between local community organizations such as schools and nonprofits that students work with throughout the course of a semester. Badger Volunteers provides transportation, orientation and education sessions for those who sign up for the program. 

Participants are expected to show up on time in their “BV shirts” ready to serve their community for 11 weeks during the semester or eight weeks over the summer. Students who sign up often volunteer multiple semesters, like Junior Ali Joan Baker who has been a part of the program for three semesters. 

“I thought it was cool that you work with the same people and the same organization” over a period of time, she said. 

When Baker decided to attend UW-Madison, she began researching volunteer opportunities since she had spent time doing volunteer work back home in Utah. She found herself interested in volunteering with animals especially. 

She said liked BV because the program offered transportation and a chance to focus on one organization for a period of time. During her time with BV, Baker volunteered at Emerson Elementary School for one semester and Three Gaits Therapeutic Horsemanship Center, a nonprofit that works to enhance the lives of people with physical, emotional, or intellectual challenges for the last two semesters.

“I’m a very social person as well, so it’s nice to talk to people while volunteering,” she said.

Baker said participating in BV feels gratifying because rather than spending one day doing a service activity, she gets to develop a relationship with the people on her team and those at the site. Other students in the program shared similar experiences. 

“A lot of the students working with people are able to develop sustainable relationships with people in the community,” senior Anna Walther said. 

In feedback given to the Morgridge Center, students often report an increase in leadership skills including problem-solving, team-building, motivation, communication, listening, empathy, building community, and empowering others after participating in BV. Students often report having greater knowledge of Madison and issues present within the local community. 

In some cases, students who remain in Madison after college will continue to maintain relationships with the site the volunteered at or even work for them. Sanon said students feel more able to connect with the community after doing Badger Volunteers for a long period of time.

“I think a lot of people go into volunteering with a mindset that you’re going to make a big difference or people go in with a preconceived notion of what you’re going to be doing,” Walther said. 

She said BV supplements organizations through creating mutually beneficial relationships between students and community organizations, even though students never know exactly what to expect when entering a new environment. Some students like that about the program.

“I like it because you never know what life is going to be exactly and you never know what the situation is going to be sometime,” Baker said. 

Walther said BV offers students a great opportunity to explore their interests as well as different career opportunities within the nonprofit sector while also getting involved in the community. She encourages students to sign up and jump in.