Penn VIPS harnesses the impulse to do good

Spiral notebooks and three-ring binders fight for space in a small corner of Isabel Mapp’s office.

One might think that the director of Penn Volunteers in Public Service was overly fond of office supplies. But the materials are not meant for her; they will soon be claimed by school children in the surrounding neighborhood.

Several times a year, Penn faculty, staff, and alumni flood Mapp’s office with school supplies, toys, computers, and canned goods. Pick any month out of the year and you can be sure that a University-wide drive to collect goods for the West Philadelphia community is in full swing. Last winter, this generosity was so overwhelming that when a thief ruined neighboring Drexel University’s Christmas drive, the Penn community came to the rescue, replacing many of the stolen gifts.

Donations have also traveled well beyond West Philadelphia. As a participant of the University’s Digital Divide Program, Penn VIPS advertises for computers around the University and then donates them to Miracle Corners, which has a program in Tanzania. “It always makes me feel like there is hope in the world because I see how generous the Penn community is,” said Mapp.

Penn people donate not only goods but also their time. They tutor children in after-school programs, lace up their sneakers for breast cancer walks, and roll up their sleeves for community clean-ups. For a decade now, Penn VIPS has run a successful Workplace Mentoring Program, which matches local eighth graders to University staffers. The school children benefit from interaction within the University setting while staffers get the chance to form friendships that last well beyond their participation in the program.

Penn staffers also get a chance to impart some of their expertise to young minds during Penn VIPS shadowing days. “We’re providing opportunities to Penn folks to practice their craft by teaching it to others in the community,” said Mapp.

Indeed, being of service is so much a part of Penn’s culture that the University created Mapp’s position, placing a person in charge of inspiring its staffers to do good. Look elsewhere in the higher education community and you’d be hard pressed to find another person who plays a similar role.

And if the increasing numbers of Penn volunteers is any measure, Penn VIPS is accomplishing its mission. Map said that about 5,000 Penn faculty, staff and alumni volunteer each year.

“I’m just really happy that at Penn we have been able to centralize volunteer services. It makes it so much better because people know where to call to get the assistance they need and Penn folks know who they can call when they have excesses.”

Mapp said that getting involved is as easy as sending her an e-mail. The list of volunteer opportunities is extensive and varied so you’ll be sure to find something that fits your interests.

To get involved, contact Isabel Mapp at 215-898-2020 or e-mail her at

Isabel Mapp