The thought of another Thanksgiving dinner during a highly charged political season — or with your highly dysfunctional family — may make you want to go AWOL with some rescue turkeys. Instead, consider using your days off to give back to your community. Food banks, rescue missions, and soup kitchens run on the steam of volunteers (and donations) and the holidays are a natural time for people wanting to help.
“The spirit of the holiday season does lend to us getting more volunteers,” says Andrea Jaron, executive director at Second Helpings Atlanta. “People have the time off and are thinking about giving back, but we like to say we need volunteers the other 364 days, too! Our volunteers really make a difference.”
Noreen Flewelling, senior development director at Cathedral Kitchen in Camden, NJ, agrees. “Between now and Martin Luther King Day, we are so fortunate for the amount of people who want to come and help, but we always encourage people to think of us during the summer months. That’s when kids aren’t in school so they’re not getting their free school meals and the number of families needing help goes up.”
Meet the Experts
Andrea Jaron is the executive director at Second Helpings Atlanta.
Noreen Flewelling is senior development director at Cathedral Kitchen in Camden, NJ.
Volunteering can come in many different forms, but with more than 34 million chronically hungry Americans (including 9 million children), reducing food insecurity is a direct and significant way to help. During the holiday season, when most of us are bemoaning all the extra calories from countless holiday parties, helping to nourish fellow Americans is especially poignant. There’s everything from serving guests, restaurant-style, at Cathedral Kitchen to delivering Christmas food baskets in Los Angeles with Santa Monica’s One Voice.
To get you started, we’ve pulled together a list of places across the United States that could use your help. Many larger programs have online calendars and on-boarding or you can simply call or stop by your local food pantry to volunteer. And there’s no shame in the money-giving game if you don’t have the time to volunteer.
Second Helpings Atlanta (Atlanta, GA)
A non-profit food rescue organization in metro Atlanta whose mission is to reduce hunger and food waste. Second Helpings Atlanta need volunteers to drive a 90-minute food rescue route or assemble and pack food donations.
Cathedral Kitchen (Camden, NJ)
The largest emergency food provider in Camden, serving over 100,000 meals every year. Cathedral Kitchen not only provides food but job training and support services. They have over 9,000 volunteer slots to help run their meal programs.
Citymeals on Wheels (New York, NY)
Since 1981, Citymeals on Wheels has delivered over 67 million meals to elderly New Yorkers. Volunteers can deliver meals, craft cards for holidays and birthdays, provide companionship for the isolated elderly, or pack and serve meals.
Boston Cares (Boston, MA)
As the largest volunteer agency in New England, Boston Cares fills more than 20,000 volunteer spots each year; volunteers do everything from packing and serving food to tutoring English to immigrants.
Los Angeles Regional Food Bank (Los Angeles, CA)
With a vision statement saying, “No one goes hungry in Los Angeles County,” the LA Food Bank has distributed more than 1.83 billion pounds of food for the past 49 years. Over 15,000 annual volunteers help box, sort, and glean food that’s later distributed.
First-time volunteering tips
So you don’t feel like a total newbie on your first day of do-gooding.
Ask a friend
“I’d tried volunteering at some of the big New York City programs and didn’t feel like I was really part of something,” says Ben Margherita, who’s been volunteering at the East Hampton Food Pantry for several years. “Then a friend told me about the food pantry and knowing someone there was a great way to start, especially because I’m shy. Find a place where you feel comfortable.”
Even if you’re volunteering solo for the first time, you’re going to be okay. “We’re all about hospitality and helping people,” says Flewelling. “You’ll meet a friendly face in the staff and the other volunteers. People coming to volunteer are generally kind-hearted.”
Share your skills
“Of course there’s the physical labor of prepping takeaway bags or setting up our dining room, but we are always looking for people who can help with making resumes, conducting mock interviews, or if they’re a chef, doing a demo for our students,” says Flewelling.
“We desperately need bilingual people to translate for our Spanish-speaking recipients,” says Margherita. “And muscle! If you and your friends want a great workout for an hour, help us unload pallets of milk and frozen, 25 lb. turkeys.”
Involve the kids
“Making sandwiches at home with the kids and donating them to our takeaway bags is an easy and greatly appreciated way to volunteer,” suggests Flewelling.
Go before the holiday
The days and weeks leading up to the holidays are when so much prep work needs to happen and when volunteers will find plenty to do.
Manage your expectations
“You’re not going to be Jesus on the cross the first time you volunteer,” says Margherita. “I don’t always walk away feeling like I did a good deed or that I saved the planet. And that’s okay. It’s about these fleeting moments of connection and overall, you definitely only remember the great moments.”
Know you’re appreciated
“Our food volunteers may feel like they’re doing such a simple act, but it’s one that really does help people,” says Jaron. “What our volunteers do is so meaningful and has an impact.”