DON'T DO IT!!!
We mean that it is great to volunteer, but the holidays are not the best time because there are so many people trying to get in their good deeds before the end of the year. While it may be a good plot for Frazier and the subject of thousands of television shows, this is the real world, and there are tons of people trying to volunteer during this week. There are people in need during the last few weeks of the year, the second week in February and the during the heat of the third week in August. So how about volunteering at other times throughout the year besides Thanksgiving and Christmas?
Every year, NEOCH gets about 50 calls during the holidays from people looking to volunteer to serve food, and we are not a shelter or meal site. If we get 50 calls imagine how many calls the shelters and meal sites get. It may make you and your family all warm to volunteer during the holidays like in the Hallmark movies, but remember that if the movies are on t.v. it is most likely too late to volunteer for that holiday season. So, we will pass on a few tips for those who are interested in volunteering to serve homeless and very low income people so that you are not put out for the holidays.
First, a little background before you start volunteering.
1. Food is not a huge issue in Cleveland. The Hunger Network and Catholic Charities do a good job of dividing up the county and making sure that food is available. The pantry system is well developed and very advanced. The hot meal program is readily available although not coordinated. It is amazing that homeless people sleeping out can get a better meal than homeless people sleeping in the shelters. Churches come downtown all the time to offer meals. There is no coordination and no way to see how many other churches have fed people that night.
2. While we can never have enough shelter beds they will always be utilized, food is only needed in a finate quantity. Many programs stop taking food and other donations in November and December because we do not have the storage space until the cupboards are lean in March. Don't be surprised if donations are not accepted by a number of programs that you call.
3. Also, during the winter holidays in November and December, homeless people feast with an incredible amount of food. Thanksgiving holiday weekend is an overwhelming outpouring of food to homeless people. It is unfortunate that we do not hibernate in the dangerous, lonely, and cold months of December, January and February like other species.
4. United Way's 2-1-1/First Call for Help does a good job of tracking the free meal programs during the holidays. Check with First Call for Help (436-2000) to find out where there are meals and who might need volunteers. If you are serving a meal make sure that you register with 211/First Call for Help so that they know.
Now that you have some background here are a few tips for going forward.
1. Volunteer throughout the year so that you build a relationship with a social service provider. Shelters and meal sites will appreciate you a lot more in August when staff are on vacation than in November when 4 volunteers are turned away for every one that shows up. We need help throughout the year.
2. Many low income and homeless people believe that they must volunteer in order to keep their dignity after they receive a free meal or service. Do not begrude those receiving a meal the opportunity to clean up or help. In the bizarre world we live in today those receiving food stamps, the last so called "entitlement," must put in 30 hours of volunteer work a month to get the small amount of assistance. So, do not be surprised if many who are enjoying the meal are also the volunteers.
3. Don't expect to be treated like a superstar if a program only sees you once a year. If you give up one day per year from your self-absorbed world do not expect the best treatment from the social service providers. That is why religious institutions offer services every week or more and not just once per year.
4. You most likely will have to do menial tasks when you start volunteering. All the programs need volunteers to do the repetative tasks or certainly clerical duties. Do not be discouraged with doing the grunt work at first. Eventually after the program coordinators get to know you and build a relationship they will trust you with more independent activities. So you could take on the task of volunteering to coordinate all the hot meals served in Downtown Cleveland.
5. Remember your feelings are of very little importance and the feelings of those being served are of primary importance. Do not cause trouble for the coordinators. They have to worry about without having to please the volunteers.
6. Volunteering is only what you make of it. If you talk to other volunteers and those that you are serving while doing the assigned tasks you will have a much better experience than those who just slop food and clean dishes and go home.
Posts by Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless staff and Board.