Friday, November 25, 2005

A Few Tips for Volunteering During the Holidays


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.


Deidre said...

I agree totally, especially since I field a lot of those calls myself! Seriously, though, every agency I've ever worked with has appreciated every volunteer, every one who has called and asked to volunteer. One thing I've noticed is that while people donate tons of school supplies, very few, if any, donate uniforms, and even then never for the older/larger sized children that may be in need. The same goes for toys and other Christmas gifts. There are far more mid to late teens in shelter than you realise. Teenage boys and boys in general get especially neglected. In the upcoming holidays, please remember these children, shelter is hard enough, even harder if you have to spend the holidays in one and can't see your family.

kyla said...

Another great way to volunteer is to think about your professional skills and how you can help an organization by sharing them. Rather than serving a meal, could you help the non-profit fill out their 990 report with your financial background? Or could you use your marketing background to help the organization reach out to new donors that would help them get through the rest of the year? Or maybe even help edit the monthly newsletter. It doesn't have to mean a huge chunk of time, but sharing a few hours of your professional skills might help the cause much more in the long-run.

Anonymous said...

jYou tell people not to volunteer because you think there is too much help ot too much food. Let people help whether they only do it one a year it is better than not at all. Just becuase you would rather not take thier phone calls is selfish. The homeless need love more than food and more than clothes, why would you deny people from volunteering and sharing some love with a person who does not have a family!

Brian Davis said...


You misunderstood the point of the posting. It said please think about volunteering at other times besides the holidays. The social service providers need volunteers all year round and not just at Christmas and Thanksgiving. All the phone calls take away the time staff has to get more food, housing, and jobs for people. It is not selfish. It is practical. If you believe that volunteering is an expression of love, how about showing that love in July and March?

Anonymous said...

Very passive, agressive post you have here. I'll look to another agency that is more welcoming and encouraging. Many people tell themselves, I'd like to help, but where can I make a difference. After reading this post I'm inclined to say forget it. If my help isn't wanted or appreciated then I'll stay home.

Cleveland Homeless said...

I don't understand Anonymous #2's comments and I guess that is why they do not want their name used. If someone tells you that your act of charity may not be very helpful, but wants you to look in other places and other times to volunteer, your response is fine I will not volunteer? That does not make sense. We are giving you many suggestions for where you can make a difference, and our entire website has other suggestions, but Anonymous responds with "forget it." We appreciate your help and want your help, but it is difficult to appreciate your unique assistance if we only see you at Thanksgiving or Christmas and you are part of the thousands who only volunteer around this holiday.


jenn said...

I am one of those volunteers that for the first time was going to volunteer for Thanksgiving. I read this post and DID NOT feel offended because my aim is to help...genuinely help. I realize that I am far removed from these situations and appreciate the people who are in it everyday letting me know how I can in fact help. Also, I was wondering if there was a FB "like" I could make that would send messages regarding articles needed...example was Child advocacy sent a diapers needed and I could respond on Fri by stopping after work. This makes it easier for people who are not working in the field to respond when needed. Thank You Jennifer