Holiday giving at Penn

From shoes and coats to Hot Wheels and Paw Patrol, the Netter Center’s Isabel Sampson-Mapp coordinates holiday giving.

Isabel Sampson-Mapp sits on a table piled with colorful knitwear
Around the holidays, “Penn folks, they really, stretch out, from giving gifts to feeding people,” says Isabel Sampson-Mapp of the Netter Center, who runs annual drives for food and clothing. “We have amazing volunteers. There’s no way I could do it without help.”

Isabel Sampson-Mapp sees the world as a pretty great place filled with pretty great people. For almost 20 years, Sampson-Mapp has been the director of Penn Volunteers in Public Service (VIPS) at the Netter Center for Community Partnerships. When Sampson-Mapp asks for help, people respond. “I ask people to donate their time, services. It really makes you think that there are good people in the world,” she says.

During the holiday season, Sampson-Mapp’s work begins with a food drive that wraps up around Thanksgiving and then goes into a toy drive, which will be completed on Dec. 15. With over 20 drop sites around campus, hundreds of new, unwrapped toys are collected for distribution.

Penn Volunteers in Public Service also partners with local agencies to match departments and centers with local families for the Adopt-a-Family program. Instead of getting together for a white elephant or Pollyanna gift exchange, employees donate money or choose a new gift from the families’ wish lists.  

Leah Dennis stands next to a holiday package for a local family
Leah Dennis, administrative assistant for the Biology Department, stands next to a bundle of gifts donated through the Adopt-a-Family program. Often, these campus-wide efforts are spearheaded by staff and offered in lieu of a departmental gift exchange, says Isabel Sampson-Mapp of Penn Volunteers in Public Service. (Image: Leah Dennis)

In the last few years, Sampson-Mapp says she has noticed a trend towards more basic items on the lists. “In the beginning, it was toys. Now, I’m seeing requests for coats and housewares and bedding and towels and underwear and socks. The parents are really talking about their needs,” she says. “I kind of get the feeling that things might be a little harder for the people that are in need.”

By Dec. 15, donations will wrap up and gifts will be distributed, either by individual departments themselves, or coordinated by the Netter Center on Dec. 18. Unloading the many gifts can be an overwhelming experience for the recipients, Sampson-Mapp says. “Sometimes people are like deer in headlights. It is literally like Santa coming to town,” she says. 

While most donations are for children, the Adopt-a-Family program includes gifts for adults as well. Sampson-Mapp also runs an ongoing sneaker drive, which accepts new athletic footwear in child and adult sizes, at the suggestion of a former student at the School of Social Policy & Practice who worked at the St. Francis Inn in Kensington. 

She also receives special handmade donations, Sampson-Mapp says, pulling out sweaters, hats, mittens, and gloves. There’s a pullover made of cobalt blue fuzzy angora, Nordic mittens in vibrant yellows and greens. 

Mary Kinney, the knitter, is administrative coordinator at the Penn Center for Innovation. “Being immune-compromised, I am no longer going out to bars and restaurants which leaves me with a lot of free time,” she says. Sometimes, Kinney makes things for friends, but for the most part she gives her work away, for the last two years bringing them to Sampson-Mapp at the Netter Center. 

“Honestly, I am just grateful to be able to give something that someone else might love and might keep them warm this winter,” Kinney says.

Kinney’s work is just one aspect of the generosity that surrounds Sampson-Mapp. Around the holidays, “Penn folks, they really, stretch out, from giving gifts to feeding people,” she says. At VIPS, “I’m a one-person shop, but I always tell people, ‘I get by with a little help from my friends.’ We have amazing volunteers. There’s no way I could do it without help.” 

Drop sites at the following locations are accepting new, unwrapped gifts through Dec. 15 and new sneakers year-round:

  • Franklin Building Lobby
  • Netter Center
  • Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center
  • Weingarten Center/Stouffer Commons