An American Red Cross volunteer unloads coolers during a clean-up kit distribution… (John J. Kim / Chicago Tribune )
To some, the holiday season would be incomplete without a volunteering session at a local food bank or senior center. But many of Chicago's local non-profit agencies find it hard to acommodate the glut of holiday volunteers while planning for leaner times the rest of the year. RedEye talked to some local nonprofit coordinators about what to do--and avoid--this year to make your time as a volunteer count.
Cast a wide net. Rather than reach out to non-profit organizations individually, try working through a larger volunteer coordinating agency such as Chicago Cares or the Association of Volunteer Administrators of Metropolitan Chicago. These groups already know which organizations could use more manpower in December and can send you in the right direction.
Plan ahead. Once you find an organization or a cause to support, do some research and make contact well in advance of the time you want to volunteer, said Jenné Myers, executive director of Chicago Cares. "Don't call just the day before at the last minute," she said. "Plan early and don't just show up; there's just not the infrastructure to handle an overflow of volunteers."
Don't flake. Once you make a commitment to volunteer at an organization, follow through with it. If you do need to cancel, give the coordinators as much advanced notice as possible so they can prepare for alternative help.
Wait until next year. "Our website says that during the holidays is actually not the best time to do it," said Myers. "Use the time to sit around with your family our friends and figure out a time in March or April to come back to those agencies and figure out when you really are needed."
Don't go rogue. Be cautious about trying to help people outside of a formalized volunteer setting. "Sometimes well-intentioned folks might want to adopt a homeless person," said Maura York, volunteer coordinator at Chicago Cares. "Use a vetted organization. You don't want to bring someone into your house or create a situation that might be unsafe for you or the other person."
Keep the giving going. Consider volunteering on a regular basis rather than just seasonally. Patricia Kemp, communications manager at American Red Cross, suggests finding an organization that needs contributions throughout the year, such as donating blood or joining one of the Red Cross's teams that helps families recover from home fires, which are an issue year-round. Or, if you have a skill that people typically pay you to perform—like playing piano or tuning up bikes—consider donating that service to an organization that might need your help.
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