Finding your niche for contributing to your community
September 27, 2019 8:02 AM   Subscribe

Do you have a way of contributing to your community or circle of friends that you feel great about? Something useful, necessary, and manageable? Please tell me about your thing and how you found it. Bonus points for things that can be done from home at odd hours and/or with a small child in tow.

In my teens and twenties, I worked in public service jobs, volunteered a great deal, and consistently showed up for friends who got sick, needed help moving or a last-minute babysitter, etc. Now I'm working in a different field and raising a preschooler alone, and I feel like I'm accepting all kinds of support from my community and friends and barely giving back. I want to do better, but haven't figured out how to work around the major constraints on my time, money and energy.

I'm okay with contributions that are small or inessential but just brighten people's lives a bit (e.g., that friend/coworker who always shows up with warm baked goods), and I do best with things that are predictable, routine, and don't require a lot of interaction with strangers. My only kid-free time is after 9pm at home, and while I'd love for my kid to get some practice giving back, I don't want to drag her along to a volunteer gig where our net contribution will be negative because little kids require babysitting and don't get much done.
posted by xylothek to Human Relations (21 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
This involves money so it may not be appropriate my family we've long had a tradition, since my kids could talk, that while I grocery shop, any child with me gets a small amount ($10-ish) to spend for the food bank. We talk about sales (to maximize the amount spent), non-perishability, and what is yummy and nutritious...and how people who use food banks are still people, so it doesn't have to be just rice and peanut butter, and how ingredients for various cuisines are important too.

I'll take a small proud mother moment and say my now-high-school-aged child has involved himself with their food share Breakfast Club, so maybe it has had an impact.
posted by warriorqueen at 8:27 AM on September 27, 2019 [19 favorites]

Make a Little Free Library.

Buy a litter pick claw and every time you're out with your child, try and fill a bag with trash.
posted by essexjan at 8:28 AM on September 27, 2019 [8 favorites]

I think this kind of social contribution wanes and waxes over time. You’ve done a lot and it’s absolutely OK to be on the other side of the equation a bit.

This is maybe not quite what you are looking for, but I live in Hong Kong and my local Lennon Wall gets a weekly top-up of stationery from me. Not thousands of pieces of paper, but packing tape, sticky notes, pens and markers, that kind of thing.

The majority of people in my community are working-class people without a lot of spare cash, but I have a cushy professional job and can share this kind of thing pretty easily. I also ask if the folks singing/demonstrating there want drinks and hit a shop and then drop some off on my way home. I have brief exchanges with folks, sometimes with a little chat about how this is my way of contributing since I can’t speak Cantonese. I always get a thank you, and can see and hear the movement’s impact every day. I’ve also left notes on the Wall myself in English encouraging folks and reminding them that I’m proud to be their neighbour.

Friends with more language ability, technical skill and time have put themselves into the movement as translators, legal advisors, photo/video editors, voiceover folks, that kind of thing.

So I’d say this: consider ways you can support folks for whom something you have comparatively a lot of - space, money, skill, time, talent, ability, comfort with risk, privilege, legal rights - is a relative luxury from their point of view. Depending on where you live this might be...

- social media activism for folks with less access to media attention for their cause
- calling your elected representatives on an issue a less-empowered neighbour cares about
- ordering groceries via app to be delivered to a food bank which has overworked staff too busy to do the social labour of you personally volunteering or physically sorting through a ton of unwanted donations
- pooling together with other new parents for child-care dates so folks with fewer resources for outside care can still benefit
- picking up books for your neighbourhood school’s library so kids with fewer literacy resources at home benefit without needing to have to wrangle a parent into getting them a library card
- offering your house as a place for community potlucks to support a vibrant neighbourhood and develop deeper connections with people who have little/no space at home to entertain

Basically: What’s easy for you and difficult for the folks in your community? Do that.
posted by mdonley at 8:34 AM on September 27, 2019 [4 favorites]

For your "circle of friends," accepting the help might be plenty. I work irregular hours from home, which means I'm very often the person in my social circle who's most readily available to help friends by driving a kid from school to a lesson, or dropping off soup when a house comes down with a cold. I do it as often as I can, and the fact that I can contribute in those types of ways is fulfilling and great. If I knew that one of our group was stretched as thin as you are and was staying up late baking cookies or something because they felt like they needed to give something back to me, that would take a lot of the shine off of the whole endeavor, and might even make me think twice about offering help in the future just because I wouldn't want them to then get caught up in feeling like they owed me something.

I think the fact that you've got a loving community that wants to help you is great, don't worry about trying to give too much back until it's something you can actually easily do, lest you end up stressing yourself and your friend group out in the process. Sometimes just accepting the love and support is the best thing.
posted by saladin at 8:36 AM on September 27, 2019 [4 favorites]

There's an old farm near our house which the town bought, and volunteers grow vegetables on two small fields. The veggies all go to the local food bank or to soup kitchens, which is awesome. We just do whatever work needs doing on harvest nights; one of my sons has learned to drive a tractor and one of my daughters specializes in flowers.

We found out about the farm from an article describing how they were renting out 2'x20' plots: we did that for the first few years, but this year we gave up our plot so that we're only going there to feed other people. In 13 years, the farm has produced well over 300,000 pounds of food on not much more than an acre of organically-farmed land: it's humbling to be associated with it.

People of any age come and help: lots of young kids show up, and we always find work for them to do. Can you search your area for "community farm" and find something similar? It is a very direct way to return good to the community, and it just makes me really damn happy to know that families won't have growling stomachs.

Our town also has a program that runs only at Thanksgiving and Christmas to fill baskets of food, plus gift-wrapping. The week of Thanksgiving big crowds show up to wander through a town building, filling up hundreds of boxes with the ingredients for the holiday meal. Lots of kids at that one, mine love the event! Shortly before Christmas, one Saturday morning we go back and spend a few hours "shopping" for an anonymous family's children's presents (from several huge rooms where donations have been collected and sorted) and then wrapping them. There are always mostly children there, and they can help with tape and bows and name tags. The program is called Happy Baskets -- maybe there's one near you?

Last, what do you know how to do? I get my best results by asking t the farm or a Scout meeting or anywhere: "What needs doing? I am happy to do whatever, but my skills are THIS_THING and THAT_THING." If they need a task done that I am skilled in then I can provide the greatest service; and sometimes I scrub out the compost buckets with a toilet brush.

It's 100% awesome that you want to help your community, and to do so with the kids in tow: you're making them better people for having empathy and a habit of paying it forward.
posted by wenestvedt at 9:00 AM on September 27, 2019

I’ve been doing a story hour at my workplace (a public garden) - I read stories for an hour on Sunday morning at 11. It requires a trip to the library during the week and having a kid who will sit still for storytime (mine won’t), but it’s been a lot of fun.

I’ve been thinking that it would be lovely to set up a storytime guild at a local playground and have a different parent/guardian/child-associated person read stories each week. Having it take place on the weekend gives working people a chance to take their kids to a storytime. This could be something that you could do without requiring child-free time.

If you’re feeling ambitious, you can do songs too.
posted by sciencegeek at 9:04 AM on September 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

Seconding what someone said above. Take a daily walk with your kid and pick up any trash you see. Get a claw picker-upper thing and get some disposable gloves. I have some elderly friends here in Savannah who did this for years. They were also involved in the neighborhood association; if you have one of these there are probably tasks you could do after the kiddo is in bed, like proofreading the newsletter or something.

How about an online support group for local single parents of young children? Even if it's just a Facebook group.
posted by mareli at 9:10 AM on September 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

I have been making soup/beans/meals for a friend & neighbor whose husband is on hospice care. Sometimes I'm stop by and talk with her, but often, I'll text and say I've got a black bean soup and collards (or whatever I've just made extra of) and ask when a good time to drop it off is and leave it on her porch.

The religious community I'm in also organizes meal trains for the sick, the bereaved, or for recent parents. Some people cook from scratch for these; some people purchase premade food. Either way, you sign up for your meal & bring the food by or pass it off to the official meal-deliverer.

How about letter/card writing?
Amnesty International's Write for Rights letter writing campaign
Postcards to Voters
the Postcard Happiness Project
posted by carrioncomfort at 9:18 AM on September 27, 2019 [3 favorites]

I say think a little bit selfishly at first, to some extent. By this I mean that choosing an activity you're going to be (mostly!) pleased to be doing is a good way of easing yourself into the sort of social connections that make it easier to give.

So, I run a regular roleplaying game for some local people I found who were looking for a game through Facebook. That's pretty low effort for me, although not negligible. However, arising from that, I and one of the players are now preparing to run some introductory sessions for interested folk, using my local community café as a venue. That obviously involves more work and responsibility, but not too much, and it's something that we're motivated to do. From there on, I personally have some vague ideas about trying to organise some positive disabled activism stuff around this (I am NNT and work in the free advice sector, and can see potential ways to bring those interests together usefully here), but I'm really just intending to see what possibilities emerge from doing the next thing that seems like some other people might enjoy.

TL;DR - it's important to pick something you care about and enjoy, because that's where you'll work hardest, find like-minded people to work with, and have your best ideas.
posted by howfar at 9:27 AM on September 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

Another here to recommend getting involved in a community garden!

Helping to run one in Chicago when I lived there is probably one of the most rewarding things I've ever done. There are lots of gardening tasks that young kids can do (or they can at least entertain themselves in dirt for an hour or so!) A couple of the other gardeners brought their kids around (age range of 3-14), and everyone was able to chip in in their own little way.

The amount of produce a 12ft by 12ft bed can produce is mind boggling. I mostly took care of the beds that didn't get rented out to community members and also helped others look after their gardens if they went on vacation/were just too busy to drop by the garden for a week or two. I took the time to ask around what fresh produce people wanted and grew those in these communal beds. I distributed what I grew first to a church across the street that ran an informal food pantry for the neighborhood, then to community members who showed up at the garden on Saturday workdays, then to community members just out walking their dogs/running errands because I still had produce leftover, then to friends, and then finally took back the rest for myself. Even in this manner, I ate enough chard, collards, and mustard greens to poop green for an entire summer.

I made it a point to grow some heirloom produce as a way of starting conversations with kids or anyone else who walked by. I also seeded as many beds as possible with pumpkin later in the growing season so that the neighborhood would have a pumpkin patch by the time fall rolled around.

I know that the Blue Ridge Women in Agriculture have a network of community gardens in the area should you want to pursue this avenue!
posted by astapasta24 at 10:47 AM on September 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

I think opportunities can vary a lot depending on where you live. We moved to a town in CO from a suburb of Boston just about 3 years go. There seem to be way more things going on here than there were back in Beantown. A lot, but not all, are loosely affiliated with one church or another, but not to the point where we (atheist) are prevented from participating. And the projects we have been participating in are not tied dogmatically to the brand of religion of the church that hosts the project.

An example: there's a program that provides a bag of groceries to school kids that are at risk for food shortage over the weekends. It was started 13 years ago by a woman and her mother out of their kitchen, and now uses space loaned to them by a church to store the food and pack the bags once a week. We go there for an hour and a half on Thursday mornings, along with about 100 other people, and then deliver about a dozen bags to 3 different school in town when we're done stuffing them. Basically about 2.5 hours a week of our time. The stuffing events are fun, and very sociable. We've met a bunch of new friends there, and have never felt any pushback from anyone about not being members of that church.

There's another group that provides free dental screening for school kids a couple time a year, and then provides free or highly subsidized care for those that need it. They get a bunch of dentists and oral surgeons to donate their time, and all we do is basically herding kids thru the process on the day of the event and keeping track of their paperwork. This was another program that was started by a woman who was a school teacher, and saw the need in the community, and managed to wrangle some businesses into sponsoring the program, and a Kiwanis group to provide logistic support.

My point being, with a little sleuthing I suspect you'll able to find a lot of opportunities that will fit your time constraints and other goals. Maybe your local government has an office that can provide contacts with different groups doing these things.
posted by qurlyjoe at 11:28 AM on September 27, 2019

Do you knit or crochet? There are tons and tons of crafting-for-charity options all over, for any number of organizations and any number of things you could knit at any number of levels. For example:

* baby hats or bibs or blankets or the like to give to hospitals, homeless shelters, etc.
* blankets for dog shelters or vet hospitals
* dishcloths or hand towels or hot pads for homeless shelters
* grown-up-sized blankets for homeless shelters

Some specific organizations also have specific needs:

* Project Linus specializes in blankets for kids in need (the name comes from the Peanuts character with the security blanket, get it?)
* The Red Scarf Project is part of a program that supports young adults who have aged out of the foster care system and are heading to college. The foundation running it mainly does financial support, but as part of their program they prepare little "care packages" for their college-bound beneficiaries, and one of the things they include is a handmade red winter scarf. So they have a perpetual call for red scarves from crafters. There are specific size and detail restrictions (it's gotta be red, it has to be unisex and collegiate so no My Little Pony pictures), but otherwise it's up to you.
* Christmas At Sea prepares little gift packages for merchant seamen who are scheduled to be out on a ship over Christmas, and are always in need of hats and scarves. They also have some restrictions in terms of yarn or color (pastels are out, and anything tricky to care for may not go over all that well), but otherwise you're free to crank out stuff.

All of these sites also have patterns, and Ravelry has a ton more such patterns as well as places to craft for.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:44 AM on September 27, 2019

I don't want to drag her along to a volunteer gig where our net contribution will be negative because little kids require babysitting and don't get much done.

I got dragged along to a lot of volunteer things when I was a kid, usually situations where there was either sort of child care or where kids could be part of the thing. Think things like working at the local bloodmobile (or providing sandwiches) or working at a public event like voting day checking people in and out. I thought it drove home the idea that, especially in small towns where I lived then and live now, it takes every member of the community to help keep things moving forward. Right now I do a lot of volunteering because I have a lot of free time. But there are a ton of other ways you can do stuff that is lower key and might be helpful. Here are just some "I am throwing these out there" ideas.

- help a neighbor with a ride to the supermarket when you go
- collect blankets or other things for a pet shelter and.or go and help socialize the animals (or foster pets but that's a bigger commitment)
- a less-often commitment like friends of the library or some other library thing (book shelving in the kids' section where you could bring your kiddo)
- some annual event being a part of like a silent auction organizer or event registration processor
- I do a LOT of work for Wikipedia in the colder months, there are a lot of small ways you can help out there, some of which help Wikipedia suck less (always a value), maybe there is an online project?
- writing letters and keeping in touch with more isolated family members, literally just going on facebook or email and doing 15-30 min of keeping in touch can be HUGE
- making extra food and sharing it with people who may not have extra food

I agree with others, thinking of what you might have extra of, whether it's towels/blankets or ability to use a spreadsheet and try to plug in to a place that could use that. Or, while your kid is young, maybe there are kid-focused ways like picking up trash at the playground or bringing extra snacks to day care that might be useful.
posted by jessamyn at 12:08 PM on September 27, 2019 [2 favorites]

My coworker organizes a food drive every year for our office (sends reminders out and arranges getting the food picked up), they also participate in an annual fundraiser (like a walk/bike tour) that raises money for cancer, and every year they remind us to bring in our old batteries and paint and they take it to the depot for recycling.

I bring baked goods in to work and give fairly regularly to local charities that take donations of food, clothes, and women's products (like feminine sanitary products) and I tell my friends and colleagues to bring items in or I'll pick them up. I donate most of my unneeded clothes to those places versus trying to sell them. I buy raffle tickets supporting various charities in town, like if there's a charity dinner or something I can buy locally and part of the proceeds go to a local cause I choose it over other products, we have a coffee brand in town and a portion of their sales is donated to a local homeless shelter.
posted by lafemma at 12:12 PM on September 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

I can relate! I used to volunteer a lot but as a single parent of a young child, I had to change my expectations of myself.

What about reaching out to other parents for a brief moment of connection? Having small children can be a tough gig and isolating. I definitely appreciate those parents who make a friendly gesture at day care/school drop-off or make the effort to plan a play date. Even a smile really makes my day sometimes.

I also choose small one-off things for volunteering instead of bigger commitments, just to make it more manageable. Recently I helped out by doing research from home after my kid's bedtime.

This is a great question! I hope you find some things that work for you!
posted by bighappyhairydog at 12:24 PM on September 27, 2019 [2 favorites]

I get tons of thank yous from people who use the dog poop can that I put out. It keeps people from having to carry a bag of poo all the way home with them. I got one of those old fashioned metal trash cans, chained the lid to it so it wouldn't get lost and chained the can to the fence (the first one was stolen, wtf?). Once a week I change out the bin liner and throw the old one away. Very little cost or effort on my part but makes the neighborhood a little more user friendly. One year I got a Christmas card with $20 in it as a thank you!
Apparently some folks need instructions so I got a paint pen and wrote on the lid.:Dog poop only. Pease replace lid. Please tie a knot in your bag
If you do put one out, paint pens work better than permanent markers which fade quickly.
posted by BoscosMom at 12:41 PM on September 27, 2019 [6 favorites]

Building on the above comment re knitting: hats can be made in record time on round looms. And seconding the little library idea.

But given your existing responsibilities, maybe save these ideas for a future that includes more free time. In the meantime, you're contributing to your cmmunity by maintaining your own life and raising your child.
posted by she's not there at 1:32 PM on September 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

If you have surplus things you want to rehome:
- old clothes;
- fruit or veges from your garden;
- furniture;
- books;
- literally anything legal and useful,

you could join your local Buy Nothing group to give them away.

I've also seen people give their time away on Buy Nothing eg free singing lessons!

You can find your local group here.
posted by Murderbot at 1:51 PM on September 27, 2019

Yeah, the time when you have a small child is the time when you are the recipient of the community's needs. In a few years you can go back to being a regular giver.

That said, I am definitely one of those "casserole ladies" who will show up with a lasagna or quiche (packaged for freezing as needed) when someone has a baby, is sick, has a death in the family, etc. It's a good, practical way to show you care and are thinking of them that you do mostly on your own time (except the dropping off), and even if they don't need food now, at some point, everyone is grateful for that meal in the freezer on the day they don't have another plan. (Disposable containers; no return obligation!)

You can go a long way with garden extras and baked goods, too. There was a point a few years ago where I would bring my elderly neighbor a few tomatoes or a loaf of banana bread every couple of weeks, just to keep in touch with her.

Finally, one thing a friend of mine did as a resolution one year was a letter a day. She would keep in touch with people, write thank you notes, even write fan letters to people like people whose articles she read. Nothing long or involved, just "hey, thinking of you" or "hey, I appreciate the work you do." It sounded like she really enjoyed it.

But again, don't feel bad for not giving a ton right now. I know when my kid was a toddler I felt like this was just what my life was now, no time and no energy. But it changes so much as the years go on, and I have a 10 year old and a TON of volunteer tasks I've taken on. I could never have done this before he was 5 or so (and I'm not a solo parent!) Let the rest of your community take care of you; we really want to!
posted by gideonfrog at 2:38 PM on September 27, 2019 [2 favorites]

I really love when my cousin and her kids write postcards together to me. Everyone loves postcards, they are such a delightful thing to receive in the mail and they are not as formal as greeting cards. Sometimes a friend I haven't spoke with for a long time will send a postcard to me, and it really brightens my day.
posted by mostly vowels at 3:12 PM on September 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

I participate in a program where I converse with people in English. Where I live learning English is a very useful thing and it’s one of the few volunteer jobs I can do that doesn’t undercut local workers.

There is a surprisingly large amount of internet connectivity in the third world and I’m guessing you can find an online service that connects people for remote conversations.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 3:20 PM on September 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

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