Penn responds to families in need

Isabel Sampson-Mapp insists she has the best job at Penn. Outside her tiny, cluttered office on a recent cloudy morning the hallway is beginning to fill up with cans and boxes and cartons. It’s the culmination of Penn’s Thanksgiving holiday food drive, and, as always, the Penn community has stepped up to the plate.

Donations will be coming from all across campus,” she beams. “Last year we tripled the number of families we could serve.”

Now, with Christmas on the horizon, Mapp is ramping up her Adopt-a-Family campaign, and if previous years are any indication, Penn will come through on that community service project, too. “We try to help make Christmas merry for kids,” says Mapp, who directs Penn’s Volunteers in Public Service program, housed in the Center for Community Partnerships. Instead of having an office Pollyanna, “and getting not so great gifts,” Mapp suggests offices and departments collect donations to “adopt” a family and buy them gifts for the holiday.

Last holiday season more than 50 offices did just that. Mapp works with two agencies to verify that the families are truly needy and then matches up the families to the departments, based on the number of donors involved and the number of children in the families. Often families will offer a brief wish list of toys or clothes they would like to receive. “The thing that made me sad this year is so many people are looking for coats,” says Mapp. “I can’t imagine not being able to afford a coat.”

Once departments have gathered donations, they have different ways of playing Santa. Some, says Mapp, collect the money and have one person do the shopping. Others assign people to buy gifts for a particular child. “Whichever way works best,” she says. Even with modest individual donations, a large department can quickly raise a substantial sum. Enough for, say, a kids’ bike, a skateboard, even a TV.

Delivering the gifts can be a hurdle for some departments, and Mapp acknowledges this can be difficult since, “you get to see some intense situations.” The reactions, she says, range from not being allowed in to being welcomed in with open arms. “Sometimes you’ll go to a house and there’ll be no light, which just highlights the need, but smiles on their faces,” says Mapp, who recalls visiting a family that had just suffered a fire. “All they had were large black trash bags all around. They were thrilled to have these beautifully wrapped gifts.” If you don’t choose to deliver, she says, her department can take care of it.

Mapp says she sees herself as a facilitator and a conduit. “I’ve yet to ask for something I haven’t gotten. If you ask for it, they will give.”

For more information on the Adopt-a-Family program, contact Isabel Sampson-Mapp at 215-898-2020 or

Originally published on December 7, 2006.

Originally published on December 7, 2006