November 2006  
Eight Ways to Make a Difference
by Cameron Walker

Whether it’s delivering meals or teaching reading, being the first person on the scene at a disaster or the last one to clean up the kitchen at a shelter, giving your time could just be the best holiday gift you receive this year.

Habitat For Humanity

Habitat for Humanity’s best-known supporter may be former president Jimmy Carter, but thousands of more-anonymous volunteers also provide the grunt work in this organization’s quest to build affordable housing for low-income families. With more than 1,700 U.S. affiliates, those ready to swing a hammer or a paintbrush can find a program close to home. Another option: travel as far as Madagascar (and as near as the Gulf Coast) for a week or more to build houses with the Global Village program.

Though building a home from the ground up sounds daunting, volunteers of all skill levels can work with Habitat, as long as they bring a willingness to engage in a serious humanitarian effort and immerse themselves in local culture, says David Minich, director of the Global Village program. “The relationships [volunteers] build are more important than the building itself.”

Locally, the experience is much the same. Alan South has been focused on building both houses and relationships through with Habitat in Kansas City, Kansas for four years—putting up walls, hanging roof trusses, and attaching shingling—even though he didn’t have much construction experience when he began. “Lawyers don’t typically fix things,” he says with a laugh.

Who benefits? It’s not just the families—many of which are single-parent households—who receive an interest-free mortgage on the house. “When you give of yourself, and when you meet the person that you’re giving to, it means more,” says South. “I get back more satisfaction, and more feeling that I’m living my faith.”

American Red Cross

You may see the logo when you give blood, or jot down the address for a donation after catastrophic disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, the Southeast Asian tsunami. What you may not realize is that the Red Cross works close to home, too. For the past 125 years the organization has responded to local disasters, with on-call volunteers working at the scene of floods and house fires and, in the days that follow, supporting people in crisis.

One of the local heroes of the Chicago-area chapter, Patti Rowles, has done everything from answer phones after 9/11 to pass out flood relief kits to help homeowners prevent fires. Rowles’ work is part of a unique partnership between the Red Cross and Grainger, the business-products company where she works in international marketing. As part of the “Ready When the Time Comes” program, she and other employees get an email or voicemail when disaster relief is needed and can volunteer, on company time, for a day or more during their workweek.

Rowles isn’t just a volunteer, she’s a beneficiary. In 1963, before she was born, a house fire killed three of her family’s then-four children. “I am here today because of the support those volunteers gave my parents,” she says.

With such a large organization—nearly one million volunteers working on 72,883 disasters in 2005—there are plenty of things to do outside of direct relief, from organizing donations to making PB-and-Js at 5 am for disaster crews.

Salvation Army

You’ve seen the light-covered tree in a mall, a bank, or even at your work, decorated with tags that provide the first name, age and holiday wishes of a local child. For decades, Salvation Army’s Angel Giving Tree program has been using those trees to provide gifts for needy children.

Salvation Army delivers the trees to sponsors, along with children’s gift needs. Besides just picking a child’s tag off the tree and playing Santa, volunteers can also become holiday elves, helping choose presents for children.

In Omaha, Nebraska, shelf after shelf of toys collected from local Angel Trees turn a local gym into a magical toy store for children from newborns to age 16. During the four days before Christmas, parents who have signed up for the program can come to Toyland and pick out a main gift, a second gift, and stocking stuffers; choose wrapping paper; and take a bag of groceries home.

Nancy Kratky, a volunteer with the Salvation Army Women’s Auxiliary, finds the personal connection fulfilling, though somewhat difficult. The parents are often extremely needy themselves. Once the parents leave, she says, “then you just go back down the aisle, wiping your tears away.”

City Union Mission

The City Union Mission in Kansas City has spent the last 83 years addressing the needs of the homeless through shelter, food pantries, a hotline with shelter information and a summer camp for underprivileged kids on the mission’s 500 acres in the Ozarks.

The mission offers a range of opportunities for volunteers as well, from fundraising to working at charitable events to jobs such as maintenance and cooking.

When he retired two years ago, Bob Wassam was looking to contribute to his community. After thinking and praying about it, he says, he realized his spot was at the mission. He’s since been involved from everything from serving holiday meals to tracking donations to giving tours of the mission’s range of facilities. He’s also made strong connections with the people who stay at the mission. “You learn so much from the guests,” he says. “The things that they’ve endured and experienced—they’re just so upbeat about it, they inspire you to be better yourself.”

Milwaukee Mentors

Milwaukee Mentors, a collaboration of nine mentoring programs throughout the city, offers something for every kid and every mentor. Sponsor-a-Scholar pairs mentors with students to work on college applications and post-high school skills, while the Kinship Youth Mentoring Program focuses on kids from single parent families, in foster homes, or who want to connect with a like-minded mentor; together, these programs have 825 pairs of mentors and mentees.

Mentoring often means exposing a kid to things he or she hasn’t seen, whether it’s a stable family, a person to call with a problem, or even the shore of Lake Michigan, which some kids may not have ever seen.

“What’s cool about mentoring is that anyone can do it,” says Liz Dworak, Milwaukee Mentors’ director. “You don’t have to know a whole lot, you don’t have to have a lot of money.”
Charlie Drake, a Milwaukee-area mentor and tutor since 1991, helped start an afterschool tutoring program and works as a high school mentor in the “Our Next Generation” program. Between the two, he’s meeting with kids two or three times a week. “Mentoring and tutoring passes the message to them that they are worthwhile people,” Drakes says.

This summer, one of his mentees won a research assistantship at the University of Wisconsin-Madison medical school. After a few weeks, the student called to report he was having a blast. And students aren’t the only ones. “It’s really fun, especially when you see a child succeed, it’s like nothing else,” Drake says.

Ski For Light

Imagine a trip to the mountains: the sound of your skis sliding against the snow, the smell of the pines, the breeze on your face. Now imagine sharing those sensations with someone who can’t see the forest and trails as you do.

Ski For Light, a Minneapolis, Minnesota-based program, has been providing cross-country skiing guides for blind and visually impaired skiers since 1975. The program, modeled on a similar one in Norway, meets at a different ski area each year and hosts approximately 100 blind and visually impaired skiers from around the world. Regional programs also offer weekend events throughout the country.

While some cross-country skiing experience is needed, you don’t have to be an expert. New volunteer guides, like Lakewood, Colorado’s Amy Christiansen, arrive a few days early for training. Christiansen, an avid cross country skier, drove up to last year’s event in Granby, Colorado not knowing what to expect. She and the other guides learned how to describe terrain for their skiers and how to help them on downhills. Each also took a turn wearing a blindfold.

The experience may have meant more than she expected. Watching the skiers on the snowy trails, she realized “disabled” wasn’t really an appropriate term. “I had no idea how amazing this would be.”


“Adult literacy doesn’t attract as much attention as child literacy,” says Rochelle Cassella, the director of marketing and communications for ProLiteracy, an adult literacy program that works in all 50 states. Yet 14 percent of U.S. adults--30 million people--have reading skills so low that they have trouble filling out job applications, reading bus schedules and deciphering instructions on medications.

At Omaha’s Literacy Center for the Midlands, one of ProLiteracy’s 1200 local affiliates, adult readers learn skills with one-on-one tutoring tailored specifically to each learner’s needs. Volunteer tutors sign up for an hour a week, making a yearlong commitment to work with an adult learner. Each year, the center matches about 200 students with volunteers.

Reading is “something we just take for granted,” says Amy Bones, an Omaha lawyer and tutor. But for an adult learner, “it’s going to take a while for someone to get to the level of reading that they want to be at.”

It’s clear she’s already making a difference in the life of her learner. When they began working together two years ago, he was reading at a second-grade reading level. Now they’re on their second chapter-style book.

Meals on Wheels Association of America

For some people who are home-bound, having meals delivered can mean the difference between staying in their own home and moving to a care facility.

More than 800 Meals on Wheels programs throughout the country deliver meals to local seniors, providing nutrition and daily contact with another person. The volunteer provides a natural safety check, too, for people who may not have any other regular visitors.

Doug Shima started volunteering with Meals on Wheels in college; the law firm where he worked as a clerk was involved with the program, and he thought he’d give it a try. Nearly two decades later, he’s a lawyer in Topeka, Kansas—and he’s still on a delivery route at least twice a month. Shima says the program takes lunch to many as 400 people a day in their homes in Topeka alone. “There’s an unexplainable warm, fuzzy feeling you get when you deliver meals," he says.

Copyright 2006, Cameron Walker. All rights reserved.