Volunteering in 1976: A Big Sibling and UVA alumna shares her story

Vicki Balint attended the University of Virginia in one of the first few classes that included women. A 1979 graduate of the College of Arts and Sciences, Balint grew up in the Washington, D.C. area. She remembers the two-hour drive down 29 South from the northern Virginia area to Charlottesville — still steeped in the history of segregation and tradition of male-only students — as stepping back “lightyears” in time.

“Charlottesville was part of the South. Segregation was still very much in place, perhaps not in a legal way, but in a geographic way,” Balint says. “It was a mindset, too. Change is very slow to happen.”

In her first year at UVA, Balint found Madison House’s Big Sibling program — back then, called Big Brothers and Big Sisters — on a poster on Grounds. Like so many of today’s Madison House volunteers, Balint sought to escape the “insular” and “protected” feeling many students experience on Grounds.

“Volunteering takes you outside of yourself and your own struggles,” Balint says. “It gives you a way to cope.”

After signing up with Madison House, the program matched Balint with her “little sister” Sharon, who Balint says was about six years old and lived in public housing in Charlottesville’s 10th and Page neighborhood.

“I would walk off Grounds, usually on a Saturday morning, go past the Rotunda, over the hill, past 10th Street and Hardy Drive. It was a completely different world then,” Balint says. She remembers the discomfort of standing out in her little sister’s neighborhood, as a blond-haired, blue-eyed female UVA student from the D.C. suburbs.

“I can still put myself at her front door, I can still feel what it was like to stand there, it was just so different,” Balint says. She remembers Sharon’s excitement and her mother’s warm welcome whenever Balint visited, and tells stories of taking Sharon to ice cream, flying kites together, and going to Madison House-sponsored events and activities. She remembers taking Sharon on a walk across Grounds, holding her hand, and wondering if that may have been Sharon’s first time on Grounds — what she might have been thinking about seeing people who didn’t look like her.  

As an English literature and speech communications double-major, Balint says her Madison House experience influenced her academic pursuits, as well as the worldview she holds today. In speech communications classes, Balint studied the rhetoric of social movements like the Civil Rights Movement and others from prior centuries. Balint says volunteering through Madison House kept her “grounded,” and played just as large of a role in her education as reading literature, learning how to write, and struggling through her math and science requirements.

"I think Madison House did inspire me to look in a little bit closer and think, ‘Why is it that just over the hill there are housing projects in Charlottesville?’” Balint says. “Certainly it continued a lifelong feeling of responsibility that you need to care to care for other people. That’s why we’re here.”

In honor of her transformative experience as a Big Sister at Madison House, Balint recently became a Madison House Society donor. Her gift allows Madison House to continue its mission of building leadership and community, while promoting a lifelong commitment to community service.

“To be at UVA as a student — for anyone, whatever their background — is a privilege. With that privilege, comes great responsibility to remember those who are less fortunate,” Balint says. “I still feel that now very strongly, which is why I contribute to Madison House and why I am so pleased that it remains a thriving organization at the University after all of these years.”