Right now a lot of us are trying to do anything and everything we can to bring down a Trump/Pence administration. Unfortunately, it takes a lot of work—as in years—and the United States is massive, which doesn’t lend itself well to overnight change. That doesn’t mean that resistance is futile (it’s anything but), but it does mean that a lot of people are feeling like even their best effort may not do… anything.
If there’s one way you can subtly burn down the status quo (the status quo being bigotry and hatred, as prescribed by our soon-to-be leader), it’s by getting heavily invested in your community—by digging in deep to where you live, doling out your time or your dollars (or both), whatever you have to give. It’s by supporting people who might be different from you, who might stir up feelings that leave you overwhelmed, or confused. Maybe you avoid people with disabilities because they make you nervous, or you steer clear of the elderly because age freaks you out, or you don’t actually know anyone outside your race or religion or socio-economic status—it happens. But keeping ourselves in our safe boxes—whether it’s on purpose or not—keeps us alienated from one another, and especially keeps us alienated from those who need the most help.
This time of the year, it’s easy to write a sweet and sappy, “Let’s go volunteer for a day around the holidays, it’s in the spirit of things” post, supply some links, and move on. But today we’ve got 16 ways you can volunteer—and luckily, you can do all of these all year long, not just when we’re all trying to be merry and bright.
if you want to volunteer with kids and families
tutor elementary kids in reading: This is actually one of my favorite ways to volunteer my time. When I lived in Alabama, I found a city-run program that matched volunteers with second and third graders near them. When I lived in Oregon, I knew people who volunteered with the local SMART branch. Taking sixty minutes out of your week to sit down with a kid who wants to learn to read is good for everyone’s soul. You can also use this site to search for a literacy center near you, and inquire about volunteer opportunities within.
teach high school STUDENTS how to navigate a fafsa: I was a first generation college student, and when it came time to do my FAFSA, I had to figure it out myself. It wasn’t easy at the time, but it definitely gave me skills that are valuable, and they’re the kind of skills that a lot of high school students need. As far as I know, there isn’t a nationwide program that recruits volunteers specifically to connect them with high school students who need help with a FAFSA, but there’s nothing stopping you from calling your neighborhood high school principal’s office and asking if there’s a need.
Find your local Boys and Girls Club: Sure, you’ve seen the billboards, but have you ever stopped to see what the Boys and Girls Club is all about? They’re always looking for mentors, volunteers, class leaders, and more, and they’ve even made videos that will tell you about the experience.
pay off someone’s layaway balance: You have probably heard of this idea before, usually around the holidays, but it’s so good that it’s worth bringing up in case you haven’t. A lot of big box stores (think Wal-Mart and K-Mart) have layaways, where customers can pay off an item (or a group of items) a little bit at a time. It turns out that anyone can pay off items—or even just pay a little bit. If you find yourself with $50 extra around the holidays, why not find your local store and swing by layaway with it? You never know whose holiday you might be rocking.
My husband and I actually did this one year. We walked into our local K-Mart, picked up a few items we needed, and then asked the cashier if they offered layaway, and if so, how we could pay on someone else’s account. She told us yes, they offered layaway, and the cashiers could make payments. She asked who we wanted to pay for; we told her to pick someone, and we could pay $50 on their account. She chose a co-worker who had three little kids, we handed over the money, and everyone felt like they had done a good thing.
Of course, not every store offers layaway—but you can find a list of the ones that do here.
Donate toys to families in need: If you pay attention, there are numerous toy drives around the holiday season. You might not have ever paused to think about it (or you might donate to them every year), but there are an awful lot of kids in our cities, states, and countries who simply don’t receive toys, ever, for the holidays. And sure, no one wants a house full of stuff their kids never touch, but I similarly think that few people want a home without anything that brings joy to their children. People in poverty always need extra love, and never is that more true than during holidays that are often crowded with displays of abundance.
If you’re not sure where to find a toy drive, you’re in luck: major toy stores almost always host them. In fact, Toys R Us hosts the Toys for Tots program every year, and they have thousands of locations.
Hold babies in the NICU: If you haven’t spent a lot of time in a NICU, you might not realize that there are several hours throughout the day when quite a few babies aren’t held. The reasons for this vary—maybe the parents of the child both work full-time and can’t always be there, maybe the child is going to be placed into foster care, and so on. My son was born two months early, and I made a promise with the universe: deliver him out of the NICU safely, and I’ll come back and donate my time to the NICU in return. He came home a month after he was born, and two years later I contacted the hospital’s volunteer program and the spent six months holding babies once a week, and it was heaven.
It was also really easy to set up—my hospital’s program had an online application, and within two weeks they had called me and set up an orientation. I was required to be up to date on vaccines and to get a few tests and shots (think TB and flu). I’m generally a big fan of holding babies to begin with, but holding babies who are in the middle of waging their own battles (or who at the very least are spending a lot of time away from their parents) felt extra good.
if you want to volunteer with refugees and immigrants
host a refugee family: That extra bedroom could probably make you bank on Airbnb, but it could also probably fit a family who needs help. If you live in the UK, Room for Refugees can hook you up. If you’re in the US, look into the International Rescue Committee, which has operations in more than a hundred US cities.
Before you dive in, though, it’s important to gain a little perspective. For starters, do a little research on who will be served and why. While news reports of the Syrian refugee crisis are numbing and painful to watch, it’s unlikely that you’ll receive a Syrian family in your home—people who have an active asylum claim often don’t have much, but are generally given somewhere to sleep. But there are hundreds of thousands of people who are refused asylum but who can’t return to their home countries, and they’re usually the ones who are most in need of an extra room.
The next step is to find charities and organizations in your region who offer this service. Sometimes you host for short stints, and sometimes people need to stay much, much longer. If you’re in the UK, this Guardian article has a list of organizations at the bottom. In Canada? Try this site. Each organization will have their own requirements and guidelines, so some legwork might be required of you.
Also relevant, especially if you specifically feel moved due to the on-going Syrian crisis: if you have a child, you might be able to hire a Syrian au pair on a J-1 visa, and if you own a business, you might be able to hire a Syrian student on a J-1 work study visa.
Sign up to drive people to appointments: Maybe you don’t have the space to host refugees, but you do have an hour once a month to drive someone to get their green card, to pick up groceries, or make sure they get to a doctor’s office on time. I found an organization near me last year by googling “Help refugees in [my city]” and periodically (maybe once every three months) am asked if I can take someone to pick up a paycheck or something similar. I’ve also been able to take my son with me on these excursions, which means his worldview has been broadened while we’ve helped someone who is new to our country feel a little more comfortable. Volunteer Match is a helpful tool that allows you to search by your location and keywords (“refugee”, “disability”, etc.), and will then point you to organizations where you can be of service.
help support undocumented families and/or migrants: There are several organizations in place to this end—and if you don’t live near a border, you can always donate to the organizations. If you do, Border Angels might be a place to start. One of their key initiatives is the Border Water Drop, since dehydration is the leading cause of death of migrants. You bring a backpack with supplies for yourself and one to two gallons of water to leave (psst: you can also donate to the Border Water Drop fund).
There are also charities that offer immigration services, and they’re always looking for volunteers to assist. Catholic Charities is one such organization (though they’re based in New York).
if you want to volunteer with your community
stop by a home for the elderly: One of my favorite volunteer experiences ever happened because my husband worked at a home for people who have dementia and/or Alzheimer’s. My son and I started visiting once a week or so, stopping by to say hi to my husband and to meet some of the residents. We quickly became quite fond of many of them, and asked for a copy of the activity schedule. We would both go by when we knew they were doing something kid-friendly (since he was four to five at the time), like playing with a parachute or tossing a balloon around the common room. At first I was absolutely nervous (man, do we have a lot of negative stereotypes about people with these conditions in our society), but the more we went, the more comfortable we all became. It’s also profoundly rewarding to hang out with people who are several decades older than you, especially when you take time to get to know more about their stories and lives, and this can be as easy as googling “homes for the elderly + [your city]” and sending an email to see if they need volunteers.
go serve soup: It’s kind of a volunteer cliché, but soup kitchens definitely exist, and they could definitely use your help (and not just at the holidays). Community Kitchen is a great resource if you’re looking for one.
become a public guardian: Many states in the US have Public Guardianship programs, which means are designed to help people who are sixty years and older and who are wards of the state. They often have no family, friends, bank, or organizations willing to help them manage their day-to-day and bigger picture affairs, and that’s where you step in. I had actually never heard of this until I started writing this piece, and found several state-funded programs throughout the US by simply googling “become a public guardian + [state name]”.
Religious? get involved at your place of worship: If you’re religious and looking for a faith-based volunteer outlet, your very own houses of worship tend to be up on community and poverty outreach.
if you want to get political
get to know your local party branches: Maybe you didn’t phone bank or canvas this election cycle—that’s fine. But your local political branch offices are pretty much always working on something. Sometimes it’s presidential races, sometimes it’s city council races, and sometimes it’s both. My point is that you’ll never know unless you get in touch, and in my experience, these guys are always looking for more people.
make phone calls: If you’re living in the here and now and want to take a stand on an issue that matters, you can call your representatives and tell them how you feel. For example, if you’re in the US, you can actually call Paul Ryan and leave him a message about how important the ACA is (call 202-225-0600, listen to his spiel, and then leave a message with your support). You can also call every company on this list and let them know you’re boycotting them because they do business with the Trump family (as long as you really are boycotting them), and this spreadsheet has the phone numbers of every representative in the United States, plus scripts in case you get stuck, on every topic from healthcare to immigration to gun violence. Americans can also use this site to find out who represents them by zip code and get in touch accordingly.
if you want to donate your money
Before we dive in with links and options, first know that donating money is every bit as meaningful, helpful, and badass as donating your time. If you have the cash on hand and want to give it away, you’re pretty cool. There are any number of organizations who will be happy to receive it, and before you start dishing out dollars, it’s good to think about a few things:
what issues matter the most to you? Are you concerned about women’s reproductive rights? Homelessness in your city? Protecting disability rights? Transgender rights? Racial equality? And so on. Depending on how much money you’re setting aside, pick an issue or three, and then find an organization.
Organizations we love: Save The Children, Black Lives Matter, UCP, Cerebral Palsy Foundation, ACLU, Planned Parenthood, World Wildlife Fund, Dakota Access Pipeline Donation Fund, National Pediatric Cancer Foundation, SIGN Fracture Care International, Fistula Foundation, Action Against Hunger, United Nations Foundation, Hand Up, Coalition for the Homeless, Kiva, Project Bread
Do you donate your money or your time? What organizations would you add to this list? What tips do you have for people who want to give back?