Graduate students in Virginia Tech’s Adult Learning and Human Resource Development program of the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences have helped revamp a long-running clothing drive held by the St. Mark Catholic Church in Vienna, Va.

Every holiday season for nearly 20 years, seemingly endless streams of people have left the Monsignor Thomas Cassidy Activities Center at the church with bags and armfuls of clothing.

The church, located in one of the most affluent areas of the country, runs a Thanksgiving Clothing Drive, welcoming more than 150 families. They help the working poor who otherwise might have to make a difficult choice between buying something to wear, putting food on the table, heating their home during the winter, or filling their car with gas. The drive also serves about 15 social service organizations. Over the past three years, the Thanksgiving Clothing Drive has averaged six to seven tons of donated clothing items.

The student group has contributed significantly to the success of the program. In 2004, Connie Bumbaugh (M.A., ‘06); Paul Renard (Ph.D.,’06), currently a visiting professor in the ALHRD program; and Daniel Traster (M.A., ‘05) utilized skills garnered in Clare Klunk’s Consulting for Human Systems course to analyze how the clothing drive was organized and implemented and to recommend ways of improving the program.

The opportunity for this Virginia Tech partnership evolved when Renard, who worked as a volunteer for the Thanksgiving Clothing Drive for 12 years, asked the St. Mark staff if they would be interested in having a Virginia Tech team review the program and make some recommendations.

“It’s always an advantage when our students can gain practical experience through real life consulting engagements,” said Klunk. “In this particular instance, it was also an opportunity for Virginia Tech to connect with our local community in a positive and visible way.”

As the graduate students studied the drives’ organization and distribution process, they realized that clothing was given away in units of boxes with no breakdown beyond gender or season. They also realized that much of what was included was not useful. By applying the appreciative inquiry (AI) method, the students profoundly reshaped the clothing drive.

Unlike many traditional approaches to consulting that focus on problems and solutions, AI begins with a search for the best in organizations, people, and the systems that support them. AI consultants ask many questions—but point their subjects toward the times and circumstances when the organization is most successful and, in a sense, most alive.

The goal of AI is to help people and organizations learn—through recognition and contemplation of what they’ve achieved—their strengths, unexplored possibilities, high performance points. AI also aims to provide value insights to their clients. The method’s shows potential for extraordinary improvement through an understanding of where the organization has been great in the past.

The students’ recommendations included a more targeted distribution of clothing to both charities and individuals. The Virginia Tech team suggested that the distribution be made more specific and that sizes and particular items be assessed individually.

Recognizing that a more specific distribution plan would require increased manpower, the Virginia Tech student consultants also provided strategies that St. Mark implemented to successfully recruit a larger number of volunteers. Since hundreds of multi-generational volunteers from the parish form the engine that powers the Thanksgiving Clothing Drive, the team suggested outreach efforts to encourage more middle and high school students who need service hours to join the parish.

They also recommended making the Thanksgiving Clothing Drive a family event, as well as a family tradition. As a result, a larger number of adults and children of all ages showed up to construct boxes and count orders; and to label, organize, and stock boxes. Girl and Boy Scout troops also now actively participate in the St. Mark program.

In addition to the individuals that benefit from the drive, social service agencies that benefit include the Lamb Center, HOPE of Northern Virginia, 1st Helping, Central Mission, Community for Creative Non-Violence (CCNV), So Others Might Eat (SOME), Christ House, National Center for Children and Families, Committee for Helping Others (CHO), Catholic Worker, and the Northern Virginia Training Center.

“The Thanksgiving Clothing Drive at St. Mark has always been a good volunteer effort, but it really blossomed after [Renard] and the Virginia Tech students came on board,” said Phyllis Provenzano, Social Ministry Director at St. Mark.

“While the workings of a church are different enough that applying basic business practices won’t necessarily work the same as in a typical marketplace, the Virginia Tech students surmounted the odds. As a result, the Thanksgiving Clothing Drive emerged as a more efficient kid-and-family-friendly activity that benefits many individuals and organizations,” she said.

Provenzano has asked Virginia Tech for an updated analysis of the Thanksgiving Clothing Drive. Now as a faculty member, Renard will encourage students in his spring 2008 Consulting for Human Systems course to continue this service to the community.

“The St. Mark Thanksgiving Clothing Drive tangibly touches people who live minutes from us but are in desperate need,” said Renard. “There is nothing quite as fulfilling as seeing huge piles of boxes and bags moving out the door, soon to be in the hands of people who may be living out on the street. Virginia Tech’s involvement in this project supports [the school’s] ‘That I May Serve.’ [At] the same time it provides a wonderful educational experience for students.”

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