As holiday day cheer wraps up the calendar year, the Office of the Dean of the Chapel is gearing up for Howard University’s annual Bison Holiday Give Back project.
Now in its 24th year, the Bison Holiday Give Back is planning its biggest project yet and is calling on students to volunteer with wrapping gifts on Friday, December 1, in the Blackburn Ballroom. Nearly 1,000 personalized gifts will be wrapped and signed by the volunteers under the leadership and guidance of the chapel assistants.
This year’s Holiday Give Back will serve nine different sites: five elementary and middle schools, two centers, and two shelters. Due to high interest from students, and in order to meet the needs of as many D.C. residents as possible, the project has expanded this year from 50 to 100 students per site.
“With a program like this, it’s great to support local students, including students at our own middle school,” said Sierra A. Williamson, community service chair of the chapel assistants. “This is so students can know it was specifically wrapped for them. You’re not a number, you’re a person and we personalized these gifts for each student.”
We’re providing a touch point to show students across D.C. that the Howard community cares for them and is there for them.”
Williamson, a junior honors management and Africana studies minor raised in Australia, has not only participated in service initiatives throughout the nation’s capital, but also in international locales such as Indonesia and New Zealand.
For her, this is a moment of “practical faith” and putting the Chapel’s principles in action. “I love my church family and my Chapel Sunday morning, but I also think that part of living out your faith is going out into the community and serving,” Williamson said.
Erica Middleton, assistant program coordinator for the Office of the Dean of the Chapel hailing from Prince George’s County, says that this D.C.-focused work is a full circle moment, not only for her service to her surrounding community, but also for the Chapel and its mission of instilling servant leadership within the student body.
“Seeing students being able to connect with what they believe here, whether they want to be a doctor, lawyer, in international affairs, they see how they play a role in this global community and how they can serve,” Middleton said. "What’s learned here leaves here, so being able to take what is learned back to your communities that you wish to serve is so impactful.”
The longstanding tradition has not only expanded opportunities for truth and service. It has also built trust with some of D.C. residents’ most important community institutions.
“Howard University is not some separate place, but part of the Washington, D.C. community just like every other institution in this city,” Williamson said. “We’re providing a touch point to show students across D.C. that the Howard community cares for them and is there for them.”
According to Williamson, students request gifts, and meeting the desires of the students creates visibility and trust. Williamson and Middleton said students have asked for electronics, books, and warm clothing such as hoodies and sweatshirts for the winter season.
“We have items for infants, children, babies, different things that would assist new mothers and families helping (infants) have more during the holiday season.” Middleton said.
The Chapel’s service missions have historically provided community services to those in need, but the rise of inflation, triple costs of housing and the faltering job economy have increased the need for these supports and resources. The Holiday Give Back, Middleton said, is a chance to continue the Chapel’s efforts and build new community bonds in the process.
Middleton and Williamson spoke to the importance of being grounded in “what residents’ needs are” and the belief that everyone deserves joy.
“All of these institutions have our personal phone numbers and we’ve partnered with (them) for seven years,” Middleton said. “It speaks to the mission that every kid deserves a good Christmas.”
“There’s been a commitment to increasing who we are able to serve,” Middleton continued. “We’re able to bring on additional partners including another elementary school that we’re able to serve and increasing the amount of students we are asking to serve.”
For students interested in the Bison Holiday Gift Back, the Office of the Dean of the Chapel is still accepting items. Wiliamson emphasized an open, inclusive space where all students are welcomed.
“Next year, we hit our 25th anniversary and we’re still here to serve in the greatest capacity that we are able to,” Williamson said. “In the end you see all these gifts that go to these schools, and you know it’s our signature end of the year project and it’s a great day.”