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Local charitable organizations offer tips for volunteering during the holidays

Celeste Eggert had a long list of tasks to complete.

As volunteer coordinator of the Road Home in Salt Lake City more than 12 years ago, Eggert was hurrying about, preparing for a volunteer group to serve a holiday dinner to those at the shelter. As she went from task to task, a young boy who was staying at the shelter with his family followed close behind. When she had a moment’s break from the chaos, she turned her attention to the young boy, whose eyes were fixated on Santa, who the volunteer group had brought along for the event. He asked Eggert if it was indeed Santa, and she said that it was.

“(The boy) just looked at me and said, ‘I never thought he’d find me here,’” Eggert remembered.

Eggert, who now works at the Road Home as director of development, often reflects on that story as an example of the effect volunteers can have.

“That, I think, epitomizes how the holidays impact our clients at the shelter in ways that you would never imagine,” she said. “Something so simple as Santa being at the shelter meant the world to that kid. It’s incredibly meaningful to have volunteers here, not only for them but also for our clients as well.”

The holiday season is an important time for charitable organizations such as the Road Home as it signals an increase in volunteer participation and donations.

“This is when we get the bulk of our financial contributions as well as our in-kind donations,” Eggert said. “We stretch those and make them last all year long because we just don’t see the kind of volume the rest of the year.”

According to the Rev. Joe Vazquez, co-executive director of the Salt Lake City Mission, staff members at the mission see a similar trend, which he attributes to the volunteers’ empathy.

“You don’t have to be a person of faith to want to be with family for the holidays, and there’s a sensitivity that some people who aren’t going to get to do that, or sit around a tree and exchange gifts,” the Rev. Vazquez said.

And according to Ginette Bott, chief development officer for the Utah Food Bank, organizations such as the food bank simply could not help those in need without the assistance of volunteers.

“I think that the important thing to note is that throughout the course of the year, we have about 85,000 hours of volunteer time,” Bott said. “If we were to hire people to do that much work, it would probably be another 41 full-time employees, which we can’t afford.”

For those seeking opportunities to volunteer during the holidays, Eggert, the Rev. Vazquez and Bott offered several tips and suggestions in recent interviews with the Deseret News.

1. Plan ahead. Bott said many people and groups started scheduling last November and December to volunteer this year at the Utah Food Bank.

“Part of the challenge that we are faced with, and it’s a good challenge to have, is that so many people love to volunteer at the Utah Food Bank,” she said.

Because so many volunteers have already scheduled to work in the warehouses, only a few spots are left this holiday season for very small groups of two or three people, Bott said.

Staff members at the Road Home also appreciate when volunteers sign up in advance, but Eggert said walk-in volunteers can often be accommodated.

2. Organize on your own. While many organizations need help on location, most also offer opportunities for volunteers to help on their own time and in their own neighborhood.

The Salt Lake City Mission is hosting several drives to collect coats, warm clothing, blankets and food, and the Rev. Vazquez said anyone who wants to can call the organization or visit the website for a list of needed items and work on their own or with their family or neighborhood to collect the items.

“There are many ways to help, and everyone can do something,” he said.

Bott suggests people discuss with their neighborhood the option of foregoing traditional neighborhood Christmas gifts such as treats and hot chocolate and instead donate that money to a charitable organization on behalf of the neighborhood.

“Cash coming to (the Utah Food Bank) helps us fill the void on some of our inventory items we are short on,” she said.

3. Involve children in appropriate ways. Eggert and the Rev. Vazquez both said that while their organizations do offer many kid-friendly opportunities to serve, parents need to use discretion. Some activities have age restrictions, and others may be physically difficult to manage with children, they noted.

For example, the Salt Lake City Mission hosts Thanksgiving and Christmas meals for the homeless where the organization feeds 3,500-4,000 people in a day. With so many people going in and out, the Rev. Vazquez encourages parents to consider the need to watch their own children in the hustle and bustle.

“(Volunteering at the dinners) is good for kids to see that there are people struggling in our community and to teach them compassion,” but parents need to “be aware, be conscious” and supervise their children, the Rev. Vazquez said.

Bott noted that many elementary, junior high and high schools host organized holiday giving opportunities such as food drives and coat drives, and she encourages parents to get their kids involved with whatever their school is doing.

“Let the kids learn the importance of taking a little bit of their allowance or raising a couple of extra dollars by doing additional duties around the house, to buy that special something for another child,” she said. ”Any kind of giving and a lesson around giving that we can share with our children will cultivate the next generation of donors.”

4. Consider volunteering at other times of the year. While Bott, Eggert and the Rev. Vazquez noted that the holidays are an important and popular time to volunteer, each emphasized that volunteers should also consider helping at other times of the year.

“The holiday time really is important for people to do the service,” Bott said. “For us, it’s important for people to help us, but it’s important for people to know that they can help us year-round.”

Bott added that June, July and August are “the worst months” for them in terms of the number of volunteers who offer assistance.

“We desperately need help during the summers,” she said. “We’re out of school, the kids are playing ball and soccer. I think we forget about the routine stuff during summer, and that in reality is when we need the help the most.”

The Road Home has many weekly volunteering positions available year-round, including working at the front desk, answering phones and collecting donations, that have a set schedule, Eggert said.

Opportunities

Many organizations throughout Utah are seeking volunteers to help, both during the holidays and year-round. Here is a list of a few service opportunities to consider. Note: This is not an all-inclusive list of organizations or the opportunities they offer.

• The Road Home is seeking volunteers for its Candy Cane Corner, Media-Thon and more.

Eggert said Candy Cane Corner is an annual tradition offered in association with Volunteers of America and the YWCA. It is a holiday store where donated new, unwrapped items are displayed for parents in need to come with a case manager and shop for toys and clothes to give their children for the holidays, Eggert said. Additional information about volunteering at the store is available at candycanecornerslc.org.

The Road Home Media-Thon is an annual event where 10 local radio stations broadcast live from the shelter for two days to raise awareness. There are many monetary and clothing donations during the event, and Eggert said volunteers are needed to help receive the donations. She recommends this event as a great way for families with children to volunteer.

For those who would like to organize a project on their own, the Road Home is collecting items for turkey boxes for Thanksgiving and gift bags with hygiene items to give shelter residents for Christmas. Additional information about how to collect and donate items is available at theroadhome.org/volunteer/holiday-volunteers.

• Utah Food Bank offers opportunities year-round for volunteers, including working in the warehouse, delivering food boxes to senior citizens and managing mobile school pantry trucks.

In addition to formal opportunities offered by the food bank, Bott encourages people to consider hosting their own food or fund drive. She suggests a canned food scavenger hunt as a way to involve younger volunteers.

Visit utahfoodbank.org/opportunities for additional information or to schedule a time to volunteer.

• Salt Lake City Mission is open 365 days a year and provides many services to the homeless, according to the Rev. Vazquez.

Volunteers are needed to help throughout the year to work in the offices, collect and organize items such as clothing and serve meals.

During the holidays, multiple dinners are offered, including one on Monday, Nov. 21, at Vivint Arena in conjunction with organizations such as the Utah Jazz and Utah Food Services.

Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s meals will be served at the Christian Life Center, 1055 N. Redwood Road, and the mission needs help setting up and serving.

“Consider what you can do, and if you’re not sure, give us a call,” the Rev. Vazquez said.

Visit saltlakecitymission.org or call 801-355-6310 for additional information about volunteering.

• Intermountain Medical Center seeks supplies year-round to help provide items to patients and families who are at the hospital. Needed supplies include items such as lip balm, journals, crossword books, coloring books, crayons, reading glasses, lap blankets and laundered stuffed animals 12 inches or smaller. Those interested in collecting items to donate can call the hospital's volunteer services department at 801-507-4249 for additional information.

• Primary Children's Hospital welcomes musical groups to perform in the hospital lobby during the holidays. Interested groups can contact Stella Narajowski, volunteer director for the hospital, at 801-662-6561 or stella.narajowski@imail.com.

Also available are year-round weekly volunteering opportunities with a minimum commitment of three hours a week for six months. Weekly volunteers help in several areas of the hospital, including the gift shop, information desk, children's outpatient rehabilitation services and pet therapy, according to the hospital's website.

The hospital also accepts donations of toys, art supplies, books, games and more, and asks that all donations be new and still in original packaging to help prevent the spread of infection. A complete list of needed items can be found on the hospital's website.

• Operation Christmas Child is collecting shoeboxes full of supplies, toys and notes of encouragement for children around the world.

The project was organized by Samaritan's Purse, a Christian humanitarian aid organization. Samaritan's Purse was founded in 1970 by Bob Pierce, according to samaritanspurse.org. The mission of the organization is to offer help, as the good Samaritan in the Bible did, to victims in crisis.

Those who would like to pack a shoebox are encouraged to pack the box with toys, hygiene items and school supplies, pray for the child who will receive the box, include a personal encouraging note and photo and wrap the box. Contributors may also donate $7 online and receive a tracking label to follow the box to its destination.

Participants can take a shoebox to a drop-off location during collection week, Nov. 14-21. According to a news release, participants who bring a filled box for Operation Christmas Child to Big City Bowl, 7980 S. State, Midvale, Nov. 4-10 will receive a free game and shoe rental. If a lane is not available, a voucher will be given.

For a list and locations and to learn more, visit samaritanspurse.org.

Email: wwilde@deseretnews.com

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