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‘Tis the Season to Volunteer

1 Dec

As part of the first ever “NYC Bloggers Do the Holidays,” Give & Get will be your ultimate guide to volunteering in NYC during the holiday season. At the end of this post you’ll find a list of 12 other dedicated New York blogs participating. Read them all, and you’ll have all your bases covered when it comes to this holiday season in NYC…

If you’re looking to give back to NYC this holiday season, you’ve come to the right place. From volunteering your time to donating presents, I’ve got you covered. There are endless opportunities available in this city, and this guide should provide a way to get you started…

For Santa’s…

  • An easy way to give back during the holiday season is, well, to give. Today (December 1st) starts Operation Santa in NYC, which is a program run by the US Postal Service. Each year, thousands of needy children write letters to Santa, asking for things that their families cannot afford to buy them, from video games and toys to warm clothing and diapers for their siblings. Operation Santa allows people to answer these children’s letters and send them the gifts that they would have otherwise gone without. You can head to the James A. Farley Building on 8th Avenue to pick up a letter between now and Christmas Eve.
  • New York Cares runs a ‘Winter Wishes‘ program, which is similar to Operation Santa, but they also allow team giving which enables you and your coworkers or friends to fulfill a TON of wishes (individuals can take up to 20 letters, teams can take a lot more). They screen over 32,000 letters from children, teens, and families living in New York City.

There are also many places in the city that have holiday parties and drives, where you can donate gifts and celebrate at the same time! Here are just a few:

  • Toy Drive at the Village Pourhouse : On December 8th, head to the Village Pourhouse with a new toy to donate and you’ll receive a drink on the house! You can get details and RSVP with OneBrick, who is hosting the event. UPDATED 12/1/10: This years toy drive will take place on Tuesday, December 14th-same place, same deal!
  • UJA Federation of NY has some great opportunities listed for holiday giving, including a Holiday Gift Bag Delivery on December 16th at the JASA center (Jewish Association for Services for the Aged) in Chelsea. They need volunteers to organize drives for supplies to put inside the gift bags (in advance), and you can help deliver the gifts to homebound seniors that night. On December 20th, you can help throw a Chanukah party at Selfhelp (organization for Holocaust Survivors) in Pelham Parkway, Bronx. Go to the UJA website for all the details and contact info: Go to site>>
  • Inner-City Scholarship Fund is having a Christmas Party on December 12th, thrown by their junior committee for the kids in grades 1-3. There will be ornament decorating, card-making stations and other activities for kids to participate in. Volunteers who wish to sign up should email with “Christmas Party” in the subject line, and you’ll receive more details as the event approaches.

For Santa’s Little Helpers…

The holiday season is a great time to introduce your kids to the world of volunteering. At a time when they are being showered with gifts and love, it’s nice to take some time to explain that not all children are able to enjoy the holidays. Some activities you can do with your little ones that don’t take a lot of time, can go a long way in showing them that they can help other people have a better  holiday:

  • Your children can spend some time making ‘Happy Holidays’ cards, that you can drop off at a local senior center or organization that visits homebound seniors, hospitals, or other places where people may be lonely and need some cheering up. It’s a fun, inexpensive project you can do together.
  • When you go shopping for gifts, allow your child to pick out one gift to give to someone else. It doesn’t have to be expensive, and it will make them feel good knowing that another kid will get the awesome gift they picked out (see above for places to donate toys..)
  • Check out Mommy Poppins post “Holiday Charity and Volunteering with Kids in NYC” for more kid-friendly ideas.

For Rudolph’s…

Rudolph helped lead Santa’s sleigh through the night, and you can lead your own volunteer project just like him. Organizing a drive to collect goods is a great way to give back without having to spend money. Always remember to call ahead to any place you intend to donate to make sure they can take your collection!

  • Hold a food drive in your office, apartment building, or local community center (for do’s and don’ts of collection, see my previous post about coat drives). You can use the NYC Coalition Against Hunger website to locate a food pantry or soup kitchen by zip code. (this is also a great resource for finding volunteer opportunities nearby).
  • Start a coat drive; it’s easy and helps clear space in your closet-a win-win I think. You can donate to a local church or synagogue, shelters, Goodwill or Salvation Army store, OR, you can get in on New York Cares Annual Coat Drive action by hosting a drive yourself and then delivering your coats to their Manhattan warehouse. New York Cares will provide you with flyers and posters for your drive, or if you choose to donate elsewhere, you can download flyers here from me.
  • Brooklyn Based had a great post about giving back in Brooklyn, from volunteering time to donating goods. Check out the “Causes We Can Believe In” post.

For Elves…

One of the best ways to give back is to give your time to someone else. A few hours volunteering costs nothing but time, and it means a lot to the people you’re giving it to. I’ve mentioned a few places already that have special holiday volunteer events, but there are endless opportunities in NYC to give back all year round. Here are just a few organizations that make it really easy to find a project. Feel free to look at some of my previous posts to read about specific projects I’ve done.

  • New York Cares is the most well-known volunteer organization in NYC, and for good reason. According to their website, more than 48,000 people volunteer year after year, giving their time to over 400,000 disadvantaged New Yorkers. After a short orientation, you can choose from hundreds of projects to participate in. Go to their website for more information. At the very least, New York Cares website can be used to give you an idea of what is available.
  • Street Project has a limited group of opportunities, making it less overwhelming if you have a hard time deciding what type of activity you want to do, and besides setting up your account, there isn’t much you have to do before signing up for your first project.
  • NYC Service allows you to search for different activities by borough, area of interest, and level of priority; there are a lot of opportunities for people with special skills such as accountants, artists, grant writers, etc.
  • One Brick has various “commitment-free volunteering” opportunities listed by day, and most projects occur after regular work hours, enabling busy professionals to volunteer during the week or on weekends.

Just Give…

Got stuff to get rid of? If its in good condition, you can probably donate it; from cell phones to bed linens to pet supplies. Here are some links to help find a place to donate near you:


If you are an organization that has holiday volunteering projects you’d like to share, post them below in the comment box!


NYC Bloggers Do the Holidays

Click on each of these links to read from great blogs, for and by New Yorkers. Read them all and you’ll be an NYC Holiday expert in no time…

Brooklyn Based: Home for the Holidays

the improvised life: unwrapping the holidays

Manhattan User’s Guide: The Gift Guide

Patell & Waterman’s History of New York: A little history with your holidays

The Strong Buzz: Holiday Eats Old and New

WFMU’s Beware of the Blog: Happy Freakin’ Holidays Playlist

If you have a NYC blog or website and would like to participate in a future group post, email me at




Food Prep with God’s Love We Deliver

2 Sep

What: packaging cake and chopping onions

Where: God’s Love We Deliver, through One Brick, SoHo

When: Monday, 6-8:30pm

Gods Love We Deliver building.. God’s Love We Deliver building

When you first arrive at God’s Love We Deliver (GLWD), you’ll be asked to sign in with security before heading down the hall to fill out some paperwork. I was a few minutes late, and also the only new volunteer, so I was given an abbreviated GLWD orientation one-on-one, before heading to the basement kitchen. You’ll be asked to put on a hairnet, apron, and rubber gloves (after a thorough 20 second scrub up to the elbows). Since I was late, I jumped right in to the cake-packaging assembly line that the other One Brick volunteers had started. For the next 40 minutes or so, our speedy team of 8 managed to cut and package enough cake for approximately 1,300 desserts (to be delivered the next day by GLWD volunteers). After a short break, we wiped down our station and started the next task: peeling, cutting, and dicing enough yellow onions to feed an army. We finished up around 7:30, cleaned our work station, and that was all she wrote.

The entire time, our team seemed to be in the food prep zone. While packaging the cake, we were mostly silent; I for one, didn’t want to be the Chatty Cathy that got distracted and ruined the seamless flow of our assembly line. During the onion prep, things were a bit more social as everyone talked about how NOT to cry when chopping onions and laughing when each of us, at some point, had to step away from the table to stop the tears from flowing. As us OneBrickers did our jobs, so too were the other GLWD volunteers. There were about 20 other people (a rough estimate) on the other side of the kitchen, prepping and cooking meals for the next day’s delivery.

According to their website, “God’s Love We Deliver’s mission is to improve the health and well-being of men, women and children living with HIV/AIDS, cancer and other serious illnesses by alleviating hunger and malnutrition. We prepare and deliver nutritious, high-quality meals to people who, because of their illness, are unable to provide or prepare meals for themselves.“. You can volunteer directly with GLWD, but they are currently booked up for most on-going volunteer positions; I tried registering for an orientation some time ago but had to be put on a waiting list. However, they do say on their website that they are in need of van assistants: here you would be assisting with delivering meals to both Neighborhood Meal Distribution Centers and individual client homes, during the day, Monday-Friday (one-time shifts welcome).If you want to be in the kitchen, you can go through OneBrick like I did, bypass the waiting list, and only need to get the brief orientation before getting your hands dirty… or um, clean, in this case. You won’t be guaranteed a spot every week, but at least you can try it out. Other things to know:

  • I think this would be a great volunteer activity for anyone hoping to become a chef or just improve your knife skills. You can spend a few hours in a huge, fully-equipped kitchen, slicing and dicing large quantities of  an ever-changing array of food. Practice makes perfect. Also, I swear by the Food Network and love being in the kitchen, so it was nice to cook for cause instead of cooking for my boyfriend.
  • Make sure you have appropriate kitchen attire on. Yes, your diamond ring is beautiful but it’ll poke through a latex glove before you can say ‘pass the cutting board’.
  • All that work in the kitchen make you hungry? Seafood fan? After you’re done at GLWD, cross the street and head into Aquagrill. This place has a daily selection of 25-30 different kinds of oysters, in addition to the regular menu which is equally as impressive. It may be expensive, but it’s been touted as one of the best seafood restaurants in the city, so it must be worth it…. right?

Visions – Services for the Blind

26 Jun

What: Arts and Crafts with blind and visually impaired persons

Where: Visions Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired, Chelsea, through New York Cares

When: Wednesday, 6:15-8:15pm

When you first arrive at Visions on 23rd Street, you’ll wait in the lobby for the rest of the group to get there (there were about 8 or 9 volunteers the night I went). You’ll then head down to the Arts & Crafts room, where the Visions clients will be waiting or arriving shortly after you (we had 10 clients this particular night). There are 3 communal tables; volunteers will be paired with clients, to assist them with the project of the day. Since this is an on-going program at Visions, and many of the clients come each week, some people will have projects from previous weeks to finish before starting a new one; some that I saw were jewelry boxes, small hemp-like tapestries, and painted wood crafts. At the end of the class, you’ll assist in cleaning up the scraps of fabric, glue, or whatever else you were using, and make sure that all of your partner’s work is labeled with their name.

You’ll notice that not all of the Visions clients are completely blind; the woman I was working with could make out shapes and colors, but was still highly visually impaired. You can gauge your partner with simple questions, asking if they want to use the glue or if they’d like you to do it instead. Everyone was very nice, and don’t think that asking if they need you do something is condescending: you’re there to help them when they need it. The project we had the night I was there involved gluing tiny googly-eyes to foam shapes; it was a bit tricky to hand-off the eyes to Shannon, my partner, but we got the hang of it and finished our project with time to spare, allowing us to also decorate a woven hat with fabric and beads. Keep in mind that in addition to helping with the art projects, you’re also there to socialize and talk with the clients in class. Other things to know:

-This is a good activity for people looking for an on-going project that allows you to form a special bond with the clients you’re helping. Most of the volunteers had been there before and knew the clients in the class, and seemed to have nice, friendly relationships with them.

-Don’t get overwhelmed in the Arts & Crafts room; its got a lot of stuff thrown all over the place. I’m thinking that there was probably some kind of method to its madness, but I couldn’t find anything I needed. That’s what your super-nice, New York Cares team leader is for. Just ask.

-There was a dog in this class, and many others in the building; obviously, they were well-behaved seeing eye dogs, but if you have an allergy or are scared of dogs, you may want to skip this project or call ahead.

-Visions has many other volunteer opportunities for people of all ages, assisting in recreational programs, reading to clients, and more. Click here to check out their website for more information.

-This particular Arts & Crafts program has ended, but the summer session begins on July 21 and will run for 8 weeks. Click here to search for it on the New York Cares website, keyword ‘Creative Expressions’.


24 May

What: Delivering food to home-bound seniors

Where: Encore Community Center, Theater District, through Street Project

When: Saturday, 10am-12:30pm

Citymeals-on-Wheels is a non-profit organization that provides many services to home-bound seniors throughout the five boroughs of New York. According to their website, Citymeals “funds 30 community-based agencies that bring weekend, holiday and emergency meals to home-bound elderly New Yorkers who can no longer shop or cook for themselves.” Signing up through Street Project, I was able to volunteer at one of those 30 agencies, the Encore Community Services Center in the theater district.  You’ll be told to arrive at 10am or earlier to ensure that you won’t get left behind when everyone sets out to deliver; when I volunteered they were running a late, but I heard its rare, so I suggest you heed the warning and get there on time.  You’ll sign in with your friendly project leader and wait to be given a delivery route for you and a partner. There is one hot meal, and two cold entrees that can be eaten later in the day; everything is packaged, counted, and packed for transport beforehand. Also, it could be my affinity for TV dinners and airplane food, or the fact that I didn’t have breakfast, but everything looked and smelled delicious. But I digress…

You’ll be given a route with about 7-12 stops, all within a 10 block radius, so you won’t need to get on a subway. The food is transported in hot/cold packs on a rolling luggage cart; I have an aversion to these, especially in Times Square, so I let my partner pull the food through the throngs of tourists. Thanks, Partner. We had a short list, 7 seniors, 4 of which resided in the same building. All of the meals we delivered were received with generous thanks. Some wanted to chat for a little while, just about the weather or DTV switch, while others took their food with a thankful nod and closed the door. Both reactions are understandable: on the one hand, these people are living alone and can’t really go anywhere by themselves, so they’re happy to have company if only for a few minutes. On the other hand, some people may feel ashamed that they need to have food delivered to them because they can’t get it themselves. Just something to think about if you do this project. Our delivery took about an hour; when you’re all done, you’ll bring the empty packs back to Encore and sign out. Other things to know:

-This may be obvious, but I’m saying it anyway: wear comfortable shoes and dress for the weather-this is a rain or shine activity. People gotta eat, even in the rain!

-Citymeals offers other volunteer opportunities that aim to help home-bound seniors, such as phone chat, letter writing, and friendly visiting, all with varying time commitments. Check out their website for more information. You can also email Encore Community Services, if you’re interested in volunteering directly with them; they have many programs for seniors, including lunch service during the week  at 11 & 1230.

-I was pleasantly surprised with the crowd Street Project attracted. True to their website, it was a good mix of  male and female young professionals. You’ll have an opportunity to meet people before going to deliver, and get to know your partner (mine was Ori, orignally from Israel, now a PhD student here in New York-thanks for pulling the food, Ori). I’m looking forward to future projects with Street Project, which are mostly on Saturdays and Sundays.

-This is a great activity to do with a friend or two, or even, on a date. I know it sounds weird, and I’m not sure if I should be advocating dating on a volunteer project, but it just seemed like a nice way to get to know someone while working together to get the meals delivered. Or you can just go out to dinner…that works too.

Dancing with Seniors.. kind of.

17 May

What: Roseland Dance with seniors

Where: Jewish Home & Hospital for the Aged, Upper West Side, thru New York Cares

When: Thursday, 630-815pm

When you first arrive at the Jewish Home and Hospital, you’ll be directed to the auditorium upstairs where you will meet the other volunteers and a few staff members. After a briefing about how to handle the residents (Alzheimer’s is prevalent here, so you’ll be given a few tips), you set off to one of the various wings to go get anyone who wants to dance and escort them down to the auditorium. Most of the residents (about 90% that I saw) are wheelchair-bound, and unable to go anywhere on their own. Because of this, the dance consists mainly of volunteers pushing residents around in a circle to the beat of the music. You can dance while you push, and even take a break every now and then to dance in place in front of your partner or with another volunteer. If you don’t have a dance partner, you can dance solo or take a seat next to one of the residents and keep them company while they listen to the music. Around 8 you’ll bring the residents back to their floors, bid them a good night, and be on your way.

Let me stress something very important that I learned quickly upon my arrival: Know where you’re going before you get there. I was completely unaware of the diminished mental and physical capacities of the residents here until I turned the corner and saw for myself. When I was growing up,and even now, I loved listening to my mom tell stories about the senior center she used to run in Brooklyn in the 1970’s. She spent her days and sometimes nights hosting dances with retired competitive dancers (who often wore their old costumes), and even ‘A Night at the Races’, where the seniors bet on video-taped horse races from years prior. They danced the Foxtrot with precision and played a nasty game of Bingo. They were mobile and aware of their surroundings. So naturally, I assumed that the ‘Roseland Dance’ I signed up for would be just like that. I was sadly mistaken. My first dance partner stared at a book on her lap the majority of the time while I danced my heart out behind her.  There were a few residents who danced or clapped in their chairs a little, and the only two men there used walkers and took a turn or two around the floor. This all would’ve been perfectly fine had I been prepared for it, but I wasn’t. Not in the least. Something a little online research would’ve told me, but I neglected to look into where I was going beyond getting subway directions on HopStop. I’ll be prepared next time, and now, so will you. Some other things to know:

– This is a very family-friendly activity. Bring the kids. There were two mothers who brought their young daughters to volunteer with them; they add a lot of positive energy and the residents seemed to enjoy watching them dance.

– Be prepared for what you’re going to see: this is mainly a long-term care facility. It’s a sad place. No one is pretending it’s not, and that’s why you’re there- to spread a little joy through music and dance, if only for an hour or so.

-You don’t need to know how to dance, just how to smile.

-I want to mention Lew, the New York Cares team leader, who has been doing Roseland for the past 9 years. It takes a big heart to do what he does every week, and it was inspirational to see someone so dedicated to bringing happiness into an otherwise dismal place. Lew also organizes a Senior Prom every year for the residents, which is on June 11th this year. You can read about it here in an article by the NY Times, and sign up to volunteer on the NY Cares website.