College of William and Mary alumni have been recognized for their careers in public service and in the nonprofit sector across the country and around the world, but some don’t have to look far from campus to find an opportunity to contribute to the community.
For Abbitt Woodall ’02, who currently serves as executive director of Housing Partnerships, Inc. based in Williamsburg and James City County, the call to serve came not long after he enrolled at the College, when he started volunteering at HPI. While majoring in business at the College, he ended up enjoying the work at HPI so much that he began working for them part-time and over the summer.
“After I graduated it wasn’t the kind of career path I thought I would take. It was a slow job market, and the director at the time suggested I look into the state department of housing,” Woodall said. “I worked for them for not too much longer than a year managing federal housing projects and community development type of work. At that time the director left; she suggested me to the board and I looked at coming back, and it’s been eight and a half years since I came back to run the organization.”
HPI began its work in 1985 and is similar to larger housing organizations such as Habitat for Humanity, but with a local focus. With funding from government housing agencies and charitable organizations, HPI focuses on “vital housing repair services to very low-income individuals, and families who are unable to help themselves due to sickness, disability, or lack of financial resources,” according to the organization’s website.
“We typically run 10 to 12 projects at any one given time … [from] the low end of repairing handrails on someone’s front steps, to completely demolishing and rebuilding a house. The vast majority are relatively small jobs that cost about $780 for emergency repairs,” Woodall said. “We also do community redevelopment types of projects [and] we manage federal blight and housing issues; those projects range from $50,000 to $100,000.”
HP1 focuses on health and safety issues, such as roof leaks that can do structural damage or ventilation problems. Woodall regularly meets with social service agencies and housing officials to review cases and decide which ones require attention and how much funding should be appropriated. Woodall’s connection to the College has remained strong, and he has used this relationship to collaborate with the College’s Office of Community Engagement and Scholarship by involving student volunteers interested in serving the Williamsburg community.
“In more recent history, we have partnered with Housing Partnerships on the William and Mary House Build, where students, faculty, staff and alumni serve as volunteers to build a house on Barksdale Field and then have the house transported to the its permanent site in James City County,” OCES director Drew Stelljes said. “Currently, we’re working on a project called ‘Many Hands One Home’ in collaboration with Housing Partnerships and Habitat for Humanity. We will raise $85,000 collectively to build a home for elderly women in the city of Williamsburg in a community near the Williamsburg Regional Library.”
According to Stelljes, College students contributed approximately 300,000 volunteer hours in the City of Williamsburg, James City County and York County last year.
“Our time at William and Mary is not necessarily measured by what we learn, but also by how much we’ve given back to the community,” Walex Khurmets ’13, who worked with Woodall in the past semester, said. “The William and Mary community is great at stuff, but the Williamsburg community has done a lot of stuff for us as well. If you want to make a permanent change in the Williamsburg community, do this project. You’ll make changes that will last years for these people.”
Woodall also stressed the importance of student involvement in the community.
“I know a lot of people say you’ll never make a living doing it,” Woodall said. “You won’t get rich, but by and large you can make a decent living, especially after those entry-level positions as you move up. … The ability to go into work every day and realize that you make a difference to other people’s lives is in many ways the best compensation you can have.”