When the Virginia Senate’s 2021 page program was canceled in July last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the pages from previous classes decided not to let that affect the volunteer work they do for FeedMore, a central Virginia hunger relief organization. They took their service virtual.
“It’s such an important part of the Senate page experience that we wanted to continue this year even without a page class,” says Bladen Finch, the page program’s director. Plus, he says, “there’s such a need right now.”
Between March and October 2020, Feeding America, the nation’s largest anti-hunger organization, distributed 4.2 billion meals and reported a 60% increase in need over the previous year. Much of the demand was from first-time users of food banks.
Historically, the pages are responsible for raising money in their communities—which Finch is asking them to do again this year. “This year we’re really relying solely on the former classes all drumming up support within their own groups and some other avenues that we’re using to push this information out,” he says. Among those other avenues for outreach are social media and local media, including a recent interview with the local PBS affiliate. The goal is to raise $6,500 by the time the General Assembly adjourns on Feb. 27.
Having an Impact
Community service is a requirement for participants in the Senate’s Page Leadership Program, and Finch considers it a vital component of the pages’ ongoing civics education: “to instill the importance of volunteering” and a “desire to contribute to their community.”
FeedMore has for several years hosted the page program’s community service project. Pages volunteer on site and fundraise. Formerly known as the Central Virginia Food Bank, the organization was chosen because it serves a large swath of the state—34 counties and cities, many of which are represented by Senate pages each year. Pages get volunteer experience and a chance to “see how what they’re doing has an impact on where they live,” Finch says. “And our hope is then they will take that inspiration and translate it into volunteer work back home as they enter high school and ... adulthood.”
Taxpayers fund the program, Finch notes, so this is a way to give back, “a gift to the commonwealth.” Over the years, the pages’ efforts have yielded nearly $85,000 raised and 6,000 pounds of groceries donated.
A group of 2020 Virginia Senate pages sorting donations at the FeedMore food bank in Richmond, Va.
To get this year’s effort started, Finch pitched the idea of a virtual initiative to his network of page program alumni, legislators and legislative staff, all of whom are traditionally involved in volunteer and fundraising efforts. (In 2019 every senator donated to FeedMore through the page program.) This year’s success is due to years of concerted outreach to legislative staff, says Finch, who discusses the programs at orientations and encourages offices to get involved.
Finch encourages all page programs to consider incorporating a community service project—not just as a pandemic alternative but as a valuable lesson for young people. He advises program leaders to “look within their state, within their community to figure out what is the best fit,” he says. “Are there particular programs in the communities of the pages or interns?” Because they’re centrally concerned with educating young people about the workings of government and civic responsibility, page programs are “a good way to instill the importance of volunteering and giving back.”
Read more about FeedMore here, and contact Bladen Finch (firstname.lastname@example.org) for more information about the Virginia page program’s community service efforts.
Megan McClure and Holly South are part of NCSL’s Legislative Staff Services Program. McClure is also the liaison to the Legislative Research Librarians and Leadership Staff Professional Association, and South is liaison to the American Society of Legislative Clerks and Secretaries.