Volunteering During the Holidays?
November 26, 2008 7:48 AM   Subscribe

I've always felt a bit uneasy volunteering during the holidays - to help the homeless, the poor, the otherwise downtrodden - primarily because I find the spirit of helping people during a particular season creepy. For many, I think the holidays has become a period for justifying inaction during the rest of the year and relieving oneself of the guilt that that inaction comes with. Of course, I know this sounds slightly ridiculous, slightly humbuggerish, possibly uncaring. But you get my broader point. So, my question is: what volunteering activities do you find socially efficacious and personally meaningful?

Is anybody volunteering somewhere, say, tomorrow, this week, or this month, that you'd like to encourage others to think about, too? What kinds of volunteer efforts do you know of that effect people's lives in ways that might actually alter - however slightly - the actual conditions of their lives and their suffering? I'm in New York, and would particularly be interested to hear what you're doing there. But maybe we could build a list of good things to do more broadly. And not just during "the holidays."
posted by dskinner to Human Relations (21 answers total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
Donate blood, if you are eligible. Most blood centers will be open on Friday.
posted by Carol Anne at 8:12 AM on November 26, 2008

I just went to the humane society's orientation training, and will be doing further training to work with the socialization of dogs and cats in our local kennel. We have a very underfunded kennel right now, and so it is very important to make sure these animals get some socialization or they may never be adopted.

I think it's important because millions of animals are euthanized every year in spite of the fact that people are still buying from pet stores. Helping out to make an animal's life better is not too bad.

And yeah, I'm going to volunteer on Thanksgiving Day at a community dinner in Oakland, and I think that people who think it's shitty that I'm volunteering on that day should freakin' bugger off. I've got no one to be with on Thanksgiving, and the people who will be there are probably in the same position, and at the very least will be too poor to afford their own Thanksgiving. So the idea that it's somehow wrong to volunteer on Thanksgiving day, regardless of your history of volunteering, is absurd. At the very least, as human beings, myself and the people I will be serving will be able to come together for one day of the year and find some common ground in love. If you think that's wrong, I don't even care to hear the reasons.

Another point is that many people get their start volunteering on Thanksgiving or Christmas or whatever. It may be a one time thing, but in my experience, once someone volunteers in a meaningful way once, they find their way back to it eventually. So to not volunteer on the holidays because it seems like you are "justifying not volunteering the rest of the year," is crazy, because what does it then mean to not volunteer at all? Go help out somewhere, give out dinners to some people who might otherwise be eating cold government cheese or worse, and feel good about it. Once you feel the way that feels, you'll find other ways to help in your life.
posted by zhivota at 8:14 AM on November 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

There's real truth to what you saying--it's not "humbuggish" at all...ask anyone in urban human services. If you don't want to be "that guy", call your local soup kitchen, shelter, etc. and ask when they have the hardest time finding volunteers. Volunteer then.

(Case in point: at a large community soup kitchen in my town, they are overwhelmed--to the point of inconvenience and stress on the small staff--with volunteer offers around Thanksgiving....and yet they have to beg for servers and prep help in the summertime.)
posted by availablelight at 8:26 AM on November 26, 2008

I understand your larger point that volunteering once a year as a part of the white guilt wave that crashes over urban liberals right around Thanksgiving is maybe a bit of a cop out, but you should understand that grassroots poverty agencies really rely on that wave of financial goodwill to last them the rest of the year. Most small agencies are still paying utility bills come June with the money they raised between Thanksgiving and Christmas. So, if you feel like you need to do something, you should, even if it's only this once, because this year is particularly rough and grassroots agencies will be glad to take your donations even if it's only driven by holiday season guilt.

Volunteering time is definitely a more substantial statement as far as your contribution to the larger poverty/social justice movement, and I would encourage you when thinking longterm to consider what skills and expertise you can bring to the table. Agencies are desperate for probono services, be it tech help or free design work on their new logo or even some number crunching on a data set they're prepping to submit to their grant funders. I think this is the best long term volunteering strategy, an open ended arrangement to provide your private sector expertise on an as needed basis. If you have legal expertise and aren't already on the board of an agency, consider it. Etc, etc.

As far as one time donations, specifically in reference to homelessness, I've shared on here before that shelters and day centers are always (ALWAYS) in need of new pairs of socks and underwear. They are the least donated clothes items; people tend to throw that stuff away. Ladies items, too, for any women who may be thinking along these lines. Hit up a big box store and buy in bulk.
posted by The Straightener at 8:51 AM on November 26, 2008 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I'm in New York too and one very deserving category here are the several shelters for homeless youth who are queer and/or transgender. In most cases these teenagers have been thrown out of home by their parents and are very wary of the mainstream shelter system where they get harassed (by both peers and staff) or beaten up.

So there are several small shelters specifically for them, and these shelters make a MASSIVE, direct difference in the lives of people who are especially vulnerable (and who are very disproportionately at risk for suicide).

There are all kinds of ways to volunteer at these shelters, at any time of year. You can help with meal prep or other day-to-day stuff just as you would at any shelter; you can help chaperone on an outing to a museum or concert; you can help in the office or donate any special skills you have like accounting / legal / tech. If you do arts or computer work, they would love it if you came and gave an informal workshop in it. If you can help with résumé prep or jobseeking skills, that would be much appreciated too.
posted by kalapierson at 9:08 AM on November 26, 2008 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I actually find that holidays are a good time to start volunteering someplace, with the emphasis on start. A lot of social service organizations are sort of preparing for people to show up and say "how can I help?" and so often have little projects or whatnot that you can use as a sort of "get to know you" interaction with the organization. I sort of feel that a good lasting volunteer connection has to be a good fit both for you and the organization.

If you're skilled in some way [I do computer stuff which is in pretty short supply out here] you can be a real asset to a place if the relationship goes both ways. So, to be more specific, I went to a homeless shelter one Christmas, sort of because I was on my own and feeling ootchy but I created a relationship as their "computer lady" for a time after that. If they had a weird tech support issue they could call me and that was useful for both of us. It's not super hard work for me, totally maddening for them, and just knowing there's someone there as a tech safety net is a big deal. Generally speaking places that I can walk to around here where I live now know they can talk to me if they have terrible computer issues and I like that.

That said, the groups that I enjoy working with the best are ones that have nearly no overhead and are more concerned with direct social justice issues -- I'm thinking Books to Prisoners or Food Not Bombs programs. I like them because you can immediately go someplace and do something -- make and serve a meal, put a book in an envelope -- and all the money people donate goes directly to services and/or stamps. I think besides the holidaytime aspect, wintertime is a time when a lot of us in the northern US are a litle more hunkered down than usual and so there's a benefit to having a reason outside of yourself to go out and do something for other people. Creating relationships when you feel like you have the time can extend them into nicer weather when you otherwise might not make the effort.
posted by jessamyn at 9:12 AM on November 26, 2008 [5 favorites]

primarily because I find the spirit of helping people during a particular season creepy

A few years ago a group of us successfully lobbied our (very large) workplace to institute a "Christmas In July" giving program. Basically, we used the same mechanism that our workplace used to encourage employees to give and/or volunteer around the holidays and shifted it from December to July. Instead of holiday gifts for kids we focused on Back to School clothes and needs, food for families, etc. The program was very well received and now the Workplace runs two seasonal voluntary giving programs - one in July and one in December.

I get that this isn't really 'the answer' to your question, but its one way to approach the "creepy" problem in a more organized way.
posted by anastasiav at 10:16 AM on November 26, 2008 [7 favorites]

I agree with you and availablelight that volunteering during the holidays is doubly problematic because agencies have the most help then and it can convince volunteers that they've "done their part."

But in light of the recent Winter Wishes threads, keep in mind that most Americans/Westerners are culturally inculcated to value human interaction and warm, gushy feelings around this time of year. The people who benefit from Winter Wishes value the holidays as much as we do, and they also deserve to take part in the universal camaraderie regardless of whether or not they got the message from Walmart, religion, or the basic need to feel included and beloved.

I can be a bit of a loner for most of the year, but dammit, when Thanksgiving rolls around all I want that feel-good rush, too. It's no coincidence that more suicides and lapses into depression happen between Thanksgiving and New Years, and it's easy to feel so much lonelier when everyone else is rosy-cheeked and giddy about the holidays. And when kids, even poor ones, are taught that Christmas is when miracles happen, they will ask for a bike. Chalking up the desire to get her the bike her parents can't afford as "liberal white guilt" doesn't do justice to the reason why scores of MeFites donated their money to the cause.
posted by zoomorphic at 10:17 AM on November 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

If you're trying to get more meaning out of volunteer experiences, shop around a little. Call organizations and find out what roles and duties volunteers are assigned. If they tell you that you will be doing photocopying, data entry, etc., you may not be very enthused. If, however, you are going to be heading a project or working with a team in a creative way, you may be more inclined to participate.

If you want to volunteer for one day, you might find the tasks less meaningful but a longer term of service could prove personally fulfilling.
posted by cranberrymonger at 10:18 AM on November 26, 2008

I agree, sometimes holiday-only volunteer projects feel a little oogy, like destitution hunting season or something. For me, incorporating giving/volunteering into my daily life has helped reduce the oog factor of holiday-specific projects. YMMV. There are lots of places who can use your time and talents both during holidays and every other day of the year. Here are a few organazations I've given time and/or stuff to this year:

Meals on Wheels
We'll be delivering meals to elderly/shut-in folks on Thanksgiving day but we plan for this one-time gig to open up into a year-round commitment.

American Red Cross
We do apheresis. Takes a little longer but the blood products can help a larger number of people needing it, like folks undergoing bone marrow transplants.

Dress for Success
All those clothes you're never going to fit? Let someone else be successful in them.

Goodwill Industries
Donating items is a terrific way to recycle and reuse.

Humane Society (locally they seek both technical/office volunteers and dog companions/cat cuddlers)

Habitat for Humanity
I myself am HfH homeowner and feel especially happy to give back to the folks who helped (re)construct my neighborhood.

You might check out volunteer matching websites and national orgs if you're not sure where to begin locally --
Volunteer Your Time
United Way/ VolunteerMatch
Smart Volunteer
Project Home / GreenTeam (note: local, WI)
Community Action Coalition (note: local, WI. an umbrella for many smaller orgs with programs like Coats for Kids, Domestic Abuse Intervention Services, Salvation Army, Tenant Resource Center, food and finanancial assistance programs, etc)

p.s. I'll be popping back in to see what other suggestions are made. Good question dskinner. Thanks.
posted by mcbeth at 10:47 AM on November 26, 2008 [2 favorites]

I don't volunteer much, although when I do, I go to my church soup kitchen and help with cooking and prep.

Usually, though, I like to leave the work to the experts and donate to Modest Needs. They do a wonderful job of helping people get past that one problem that's holding them back from living a financially secure life. Especially important in these hard times.

Oh, and they don't bombard me with spam or a million letters. They spend their money on the right things, and they verify everything, so we know the money is going to people who need it.
posted by sondrialiac at 11:37 AM on November 26, 2008

If you are in the Philadelphia area, I cannot emphasize enough the good work that Project HOME does to help homeless and recovering homeless men and women. It is always in need of people to donate time connecting with these remarkable individuals trying to turn their lives around. By connecting with them, you too will be changed. But Project Home has a number of other programs. You just might find one that tickles your fancy, whether during the holidays or some other time of the year. If you are in or near North Philadelphia.

My sense is that agencies are used to being bombarded with requests to volunteer during the holidays and are prepared for interest to fall off in January -- try finding a soup kitchen that needs Thanksgiving volunteers in your area. 100 to 1 you will be turned away.

To answer your question, do whatever you feel comfortable doing. For me, it is working with inner city children and homeless people. I feel like I'm contributing in a very, very small way to advancing social justice and making Philly a better city for some of its most vulnerable inhabitants. I used to feel strongly about helping domestic violence victims when I lived near Trenton New Jersey. For you, your "calling" might be something else entirely. There's good ideas here, but let this be a starting point.

And finally, don't let that sense of guilt get to you. Part of the season is to get people to reflect on what they have to be thankful for. That you feel that dissonance at all says something good about you, I think.
posted by vincele at 12:24 PM on November 26, 2008

One Brick, One Brick, One Brick! Here's the deal. It's non-commitment volunteering but they also make sure to have a social component so you can meet friends (or in some cases a significant other). They send volunteers to organizations that need help for a day. You can choose an event that fits your interest and schedule (saturday helping out at a food bank, or tuesday night sending art supplies to teachers).

I've had really good experiences volunteering because I've used it for purely selfish reasons: To improve my social life. I met my husband through single volunteers , and now I volunteer with one brick. I've made most of my friends in California through one brick. I look forward to volunteering because I know I'll see my friends when I do. If I wasn't making friends, would I still volunteer? To be honest, maybe not. But you know what? The person who receives the food I've boxed or the diapers I've folded or looks at the plants I've planted could care less that my motives weren't entirely pure.

BTW, if you have time and energy to go volunteer this holiday season go ahead and do it. The person receiving the help won't care a lick that you're doing it to solve your guilt.
posted by bananafish at 12:25 PM on November 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

what volunteering activities do you find socially efficacious and personally meaningful?

The ones that I do regularly, where I can build relationships and be real with the people I'm volunteering (both the other volunteers and those we are serving). You just have to push through that initial awkwardness you're feeling. And when you're doing it weekly or monthly year-round, it becomes a normal thing and doesn't have that holiday veneer you're uncomfortable with.

Tomorrow I'll be at the Bowery Mission (couple blocks down Bowery from Houston) at noon to help serve if you'd care to join me and my small group of friends. They're pretty well set for volunteers already but they're always happy to have more come and help. They have needs year round that you could certianly get involved with. Feel free to join me if you'd like to, just shoot me a MeMail.

Hope for New York is a great organiztion (google it, its a dot org) that works with all kinds of shelters and hospices and whatnot across the city. You should be able to find one that works for you through them or many of the other ideas above.

The point is, get regular. Get to know the people there. It will be one of the most rewarding parts of your life. And if you do get regular, don't get hostile towards the masses that show up to do their holiday volunteering, just try to show them how great a time you have doing this in January, February, March...too.
posted by allkindsoftime at 12:32 PM on November 26, 2008

Although it's not holidays-specific, I had a great time volunteering with Traveler's Aid. I manned one of their information booths in the terminals at LAX and helped people find their way to cheap hotels, public transportation, connecting flights, etc. Very occasioanlly, I was able to assist somebody in a real jam. You must complete a training program before they let you do this, of course.
posted by Rash at 2:48 PM on November 26, 2008

A few years ago I heard on the radio a local program to "adopt" a family for the holidays, to help them buy food and presents. Something about this bothered me (similar to dskinner's point), in that these families didn't just need help to have a nice meal on Christmas.

I spent a long time looking around, and found an agency that would allow me to help provide direct aid to a single family on a year-round basis. Granted, this isn't volunteering...

The organization I volunteer for (VST through the Seattle Police) pairs you up with another volunteer for an ~8 hour shift, and it's extremely meaningful work. We work year-round, and I'll be working both upcoming holiday weekends. It's not a "drop-in" thing, though, you need significant ramp-up training and time commitment.

Another Seattle organization that I've worked with (a little bit) is a homeless youth shelter called Roots. Their ramp-up time is significantly less, and they always need help.

You can find other opportunities in a variety of ways, but the United Way website is a good place to start.
posted by Gorgik at 8:41 AM on November 27, 2008

I'm just here to say that Food Not Bombs is eight different kinds of awesome and a great place to meet new people. I find that all kinds of people like eating at their meals, too.
posted by By The Grace of God at 9:02 AM on November 27, 2008

As so many others have said, don't worry about donating because it's "the holidays". Here in MI, one of the hardest hit states economically, our paper reported today that the shelters are serving 40% more people, but donations are down 35%. Just go out and give what you can, it's needed.
posted by allthingsbright at 8:33 PM on November 28, 2008

If you can travel to south Louisiana (Average high temperature in December - 63 degrees. When done for volunteer purposes travel expenses, housing, and rental car expenses are tax deductable), I would highly recommend The Saint Bernard Project whose co-founder, Liz just won the CNN hero of the year award. I've worked with them as well as several other volunteer organizations and I found that the way their organization is structured leads to the most rewarding volunteer experience. All the homeowners are close-by, if not onsite, usually in trailers unfortunately. Because you get to interact with them it feels more like you are building a home rather than a house and you develop a very strong and long-lasting relationship with the homeowners. An extra bonus is that you get taught new skills.

While there you can stay at Camp Hope, a facility that is operated by Habitat for Humanity but gladly houses people volunteering for The Saint Bernard Project and has plenty of capacity. Camp charges $150 a week or $25 a night with all meals, including a lunch that you pack, included. Camp has everything you'll need including comfortable bunk beds, showers, laundry facilities, and internets. Rooms are segregated by gender and there is 24 hour security. You meet the best people there.

People here are extremely friendly, even the police wave hello as they drive by. I've been offered food "fix you a plate" by complete strangers when I happened to be walking by a gathering at their house and said hi.

A slight derail. The charities operate all year long here, this may be future meetup fodder (I'm looking at you amongst others Cold Chef, nola, and Astro Zombie).

If you aren't available for travel and as mentioned above by bananafish, One Brick is an outstanding organization.

Volunteering is fun. Members here can memail me with questions. Others can add an @gmail.com to my user name. All are welcome to call me after 9 PM Central Standard time at (5:04) 3:55-7:55 .1.
posted by vapidave at 12:17 AM on November 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

Echoing vapidave, there is still a lot of recovery work to be done on the Gulf Coast in Louisiana and Mississippi--just because it isn't in the newspapers anymore doesn't mean it's over. I worked at Camp Hope for a while and can attest that there are amazing people involved in that initiative; some fellow volunteers there have founded Live St. Bernard, a smaller project focusing on service-learning activities. Hands On has centers in New Orleans and Biloxi with tireless, dedicated people out the wazoo.
posted by kittyprecious at 8:38 PM on November 29, 2008

Lord, volunteer wherever you think you'd be interested. A million and two places need people. Year round. (agreed on the seasonal help, btw)

Old folks homes,
animal shelters
Crisis hotlines.
hospitals- especially ones that hold long term children patients.
veterans affairs
homeless shelters/soup kitchens/meals on wheels
your old lady next door neighbor
http://www.childsplaycharity.org/ :)
parks/nature centers/arboretums

And a trillion other things I haven't even thought of.

Personal loyalty comment- the Lone Star Flight Museum in Galveston, Texas, housing and flying many WW2 era rare aircraft got hit hard by hurricane Ike- they still need help!
posted by Jacen at 9:06 PM on November 29, 2008

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