Giving Back | Holidays | Volunteer

Homegrown Volunteering: Giving Back from Your Kitchen Table, Block and Car

Donate girlEvery fall, I promise myself my family will become volunteers extraordinaire. Then — as at calendar edges toward winter — I note our lack of forward momentum.

Maybe this is because I dream too big. I picture us all serving food at our city’s biggest soup kitchen, replicating an Obama family Facebook photo. I don’t even know the name of our city’s biggest soup kitchen.

My kids would point out we are doing okay. They buy Real Change from our homeless neighbors and we make lunches for our church’s homeless shelter. And they know I volunteer solo elsewhere. Still, I mean to do better, to make volunteering a more integral part of our family life.

In this spirit, I need to make volunteering simpler. Beyond gathering ideas from ParentMap readers, I talked with Seattleite Christine Craig, an expert on volunteering (she was named Volunteer of the Year by Wellspring Family Services in 2011) and a mother of four volunteers-in-training. Here are practices we can do close to home, folding a few more projects into our blessed days.

DIY kids1. Knit and craft
Set your crafty kids on a volunteer path and create love to send into the world. I’m sure you have heard some of these before, but these projects are worthy endeavors for those idle hours. Knit hats for preemies or for chemo patients. Don’t limit your crafters to knitting projects. Here’s a list of charities that accept various handmade items.

2. Make cards and care packages
Simple cards or packages of goodies will be so appreciated by Members of the military, hospital patients and others in need or far from home. Look around your neighborhood to find people who could also use cards, or help writing holiday cards and sending gifts.

3. Contribute to an Empty Bowls party
Make bowls for these unique soup and bread dinners that are hosted in communities across the country, host one yourself, or simply attend. Find events linked to this national organization here; dinner guests buy the $25 bowl and proceeds benefit a local charity.

Walking the dog4. Help a neighbor out
Many neighbors, because of age, illness or some other reason, could use a meal, a visit, a dog walk, some help with the yard, a homemade meal or help picking up groceries. Cast your net wide: think about a grieving neighbor; parents with young children; people in the middle of a remodel; or anyone who looks especially harried this week.

Expand your block volunteering duties: pick up litter while walking, offer to walk a friend’s dog, babysit, give homework help in your specialty area (great for a teen), return a neighbor's library books, or wash your neighbor’s car.

5. Make care bags for homeless people
Making care bags is an easy and needed way to connect with homeless neighbors. Craig says: “Fill gallon-size Ziploc bags filled with some essentials and granola bars that you keep in the car and hand out to homeless people you encounter.” Ask your children for suggestions, and get their brains whirring with ideas such as applesauce, juice boxes, and small hotel toiletries.

6. Host a drive
Ask guests to bring donations of food, toys, clothes, diapers or other needed items to your next party, and then drop off donations as a family (here's a list of Seattle-area organizations that need donations). After loading your own car with items for Goodwill or other volunteer organization, knock on the neighbors’ doors and ask for their donations, too. Or ask your local grocery store if you can set up a donation table for your local food bank one day during these cold winter months.

7. Visit the elderly
Remember the term candy striper? I even wore a striped apron while volunteering at my local nursing home, and I recall looking for my favorite residents with grape juice jug in hand. Volunteer expert Craig has her children spend time with other residents at the home where their grandmother lives. “Nursing homes love to have volunteers come in to help with crafts, events, reading to folks there, and just being a companion to do puzzles or play a game,” she says. “They also love cards which the kids can make at home for Thanksgiving or Christmas for the residents there.”

8. Share your love of animals
Keep it easy and super local by helping to care for a neighbor’s pet. Or think a bit bigger by making blankets for pets at animal shelters. Ponder fostering pets. Or collect pet food from your neighbors for your closest animal shelter.

9. Share a talent
If your older child loves styling hair and applying make-up, do a beauty day at a women's shelter and give them makeovers. Shutterbugs can set up a day to take photographs of the women and their kids. “I can’t tell you what a gift that is; many never have a 'family' picture,” says Craig. “There are so many things that you can do if you think about what your families’ strengths are. Using your family’s talents and gifts can make the day a little better for one person.”

10. Buy gifts that give back
This time of year is filled with information on charities in need, and many have catalogs where you can buy a gift that helps sustain families. Here are a few examples: Heifer International, World Vision, and Dignity Gift Catalog for Fistula Foundation. Or see this list of 13 gifts and toys that give back

Birding the Northwest11. Become a citizen scientist
Learn new skills and get outside by participating in a citizen science project. The longest-running citizen science survey in the world is the Christmas bird count, managed by Audubon and run this year from Dec. 14 through Jan. 5. It's easy to sign up and participate.

More ideas for giving back

15 organizations that need help for the holidays

13 ideas for gifts that give back

10 family volunteering opportunities

More resources

Volunteer expert Craig recommends these two books:

Giving 2.0: Transform Your Giving and Our World, by Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen

How to Be an Everyday Philanthropist, 330 Ways to Make a Difference in Your Home, Community, and World - at No Cost! By Nicole Bouchard Boles

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