Skip to content



6 Volunteers Who Make a Big Difference and How You Can, Too

Easy ways to find opportunities and make contacts

You can lend a hand — or your experience or your passions — to help make a difference. Volunteer opportunities are everywhere these days. Here's a fun sampling to get you inspired — and profiles of six people who already have the bug.

See also: Volunteer on vacation.

Thema Harris with Tamika, a teen she guided

John Huba

Thelma Harris (left) with Tamika, a teen she guided.

Thelma Harris — Advocate for Children

Thelma Harris knows what it's like to be a motherless child. She was eight when her mother collapsed while cooking breakfast and died. Harris, now 61, has been trying to compensate for her loss ever since. "My father raised us, and he did the very best job he could," she says, "but there has always been this void."

So when Harris retired in 2005 from the federal government in Fulton County, Ga., the idea of working for a child-advocacy program seemed a perfect way to continue healing herself while helping others struggle with traumatic losses. As a volunteer for the National Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) Association, Harris assists abused, abandoned or neglected children who are in foster care for their protection, then makes recommendations to the court about how to salvage their futures.

"These are bright, sensitive children," says Harris, who has a grown son and two stepsons of her own. "With most of them, you know that if you nurture them a little bit and give them some love, it will be okay."

Early on, in the extensive training program that CASA runs for its volunteers, Harris observed a court proceeding, watching as distraught young children were wrenched from parents who couldn't afford to heat their home. "It was awful," Harris said. But, she adds, "I was hooked."

With CASA's assistance, volunteers are often able to find resources to aid families in such circumstances, and keep them together. In one case Harris was able to get an asthmatic toddler removed from an unhealthy living situation in foster care and reunited with her newly employed mother. In another case Harris helped two teenage girls who had endured the emotional abuse of a drug-addicted mother; the girls' loving grandmother had died, and Harris shepherded them through their grief and on to college, where they are thriving.

Harris now concentrates on recruiting and fundraising for CASA, which deploys about 200 volunteers in Fulton County for a foster-care system currently clogged with some 3,000 children.

"We are often the only ones who stay with the child from foster home to foster home or group home to group home, through the transitions of case managers and attorneys," she says. "They see so many different people that a CASA volunteer is often the one constant in their life."

And though it's tough work, says Harris, "it really does more for me, I think, than for them, in many cases. Some of these children will be forever in my heart."

How it works. Become a court-appointed advocate for abused and neglected children through the National Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) Association.
Time it takes.
Thirty hours of training to become a volunteer, then 10 to 20 hours a month for the estimated 18-month length of the child's case.
Go to CASA online or call 800-628-3233.

Next: How’s your cooking? >>

Mary Kay Gehring — Get in the Kitchen and Cook

Mary Kay Gehring's students rarely know how to cut up an onion. Most don't know how to hold a knife. So the former chef from Portland, Ore., starts with the most basic of basics: "Here's how you hold a knife; here's how you chop." Then, says Gehring, "while we're chopping and cooking, I'm talking about nutrition and how much stuff costs in the store."

It all matters. Gehring's students are mainly young mothers struggling with challenges such as drug dependence and job instability, and Gehring's weekly classes — sponsored by the antihunger group Share Our Strength — help them learn how to keep themselves and their families healthy.

The fun starts with a simple two-bean chili. Gehring then moves on to the intricacies of making pasta, oven-fried chicken, and pizza from scratch. Along the way, the 54-year-old — who began volunteering in 2004 after repetitive-stress injuries ended her chef work — dispenses budget and shopping tips: Buy chicken whole and cut it up yourself. Shop the store perimeter for fresh foods. Avoid the packaged-food aisles.

"The students love the positive feedback, the attention," Gehring says. "We're not talking about their drug use; we're not talking about their issues. We're talking about the carrots." And, of course, the onions. "One of the things I teach is that if you start by caramelizing your onions, they just meld into the dish."

Though Gehring once delighted in creating fancy dishes at high-end restaurants, she says she always wanted to cook "real food for real people." Her gratification comes from teaching others to learn how to — and love — preparing food themselves.

After one of her earliest classes, "a woman came up and hugged me," Gehring recalls. "She said, 'When I first started this class, all I could do was open a box of cereal. Now I know how to read a recipe!' "

How it works. Help low-income families learn to cook more nutritiously. If you're a culinary master or a licensed nutritionist, lead a class. Otherwise, become a class assistant and help with food prep and other tasks.
Time it takes.
Two-hour class sessions once a week for six weeks.
Contact. Go to Share Our Strength online or call 800-969-4767.

Next: Call of the wild. >>

Neil Adams — Protect a National Treasure

At Big Cypress National Preserve in the Florida Everglades, Neil Adams wowed children with facts about alligators, such as that they've existed from the time of the dinosaurs.

Neil Adams, volunteer

John Huba

Neil Adams has volunteered at 15 parks and historical sites.

At Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico, he gave virtual dissertations on how sulfuric acid was hollowing out the limestone, and guided tourists through cave holes "the size of a toilet seat."

In southern California's Mojave National Preserve, he greeted visitors in 120-degree temperatures, routinely reminding them, "Drink water!"

And that was just the start.

Since ending his 34-year career as a weapons engineer six years ago, Adams has lived and volunteered at 15 U.S. national parks and historical sites. It's his dream retirement, he says, and he's not settling down anytime soon.

"I feel so free, free as a bird," says Adams, 67, who packed up his apartment in suburban Washington, D.C., and bought an SUV so he could roam.

Currently he's in Canaveral National Seashore in New Smyrna Beach, Fla., and he says he's getting as much from the experience as he gives. (In July 2011 Adams will be reporting to Cape Lookout National Seashore in Harkers Island, N.C., to continue his volunteer experience.) "I've learned more in these past six years being out here than from all the books I read in my first 60," Adams says.

And the things he gets to do—from issuing permits to delivering lectures—satisfy him in unique ways. "Wherever I go, I hit the books hard and heavy, and by the end of the first month, I'm ready," he says. "People think you're a ranger, so when you tell them you're not, they're amazed at how much you know."

And they often show their gratitude. "A lot of people thank me out of the blue just for being a volunteer," says Adams. "The rangers themselves say that without us, a lot of things would not happen."

Consider the common challenge of making sure visitors obey the rules. Once, at the edge of the mile-deep Grand Canyon, a hiker ignoring the marked trails and carrying no water began an unsteady walk down a dangerously steep slope.

"I asked him not to go, but he kept yelling, 'This is my park!' " Adams says. "I said, 'Fine, but before you go, I need your name, address, and next of kin.' "

"When I said 'next of kin,' he came to his senses."

How it works. Pick among the nearly 400 parks and historical sites run by the National Park Service. Then sign up for one of more than 175,000 volunteer opportunities — from counting rare birds to working at a visitors center.
Time it takes.
As little as a few hours or can be an ongoing commitment.
Contact. Go to the National Park Service online.

Next: The school bell’s ringing. >>

Tony Helies — Inspire a Middle Schooler

Nothing excites Tony Helies more than watching sixth and seventh graders ooh and aah over the solar system. Helies, 66, a former Apollo moon-project engineer who spent most of his profession in a networking-software business, volunteers about five hours per week teaching afterschool astronomy in Boston-area middle schools.

But not just any middle schools: Helies heads to those where the previous year most of the minority students underperformed on the science section of the state's standardized tests.

His mission: to get those students so excited about learning that they consider a career in astronomy. Armed with space photographs, he assigns them irresistibly fun tasks — such as making pinhole cameras to learn which is bigger, the sun or the moon, or doing experiments to see how fast a moon orbits around its planet.

Then, never forgetting how his single-parent mom pushed him to excel, Helies introduces his charges to some of the world's top astrophysics professors — right in the lecture halls of local universities. Rather than sit for lectures, the kids get to present to the professors, then engage in enthusiastic debate.

"One seventh-grade girl was so painfully shy that for a long time she hardly opened her mouth in class," Helies recalls. "But she learned her material, and when it was her turn, she gave this great pitch about Pluto."

A boy who was forever being sent to detention for behavior problems got so hooked on the experience that he penned a note to Helies, pledging to do better in school: "I will give 110 percent.… Keep making astronomy fun. Peace Out."

Helies says this is the kind of affirmation that keeps him coming back. "How many times can you bring [a note] like that home to show your wife?" he asks.

How it works. Serve up the low-down on finance, gardening, rocket science — whatever your expertise may be — and expose disadvantaged students to career possibilities.
Time it takes.
An afternoon of training, followed by classes that meet for 90 minutes a week for 10 weeks.
Go to Citizen Schools online or call 617-695-2300.

Next: Nailing solutions. >>

Jerry Liu — Spruce Up a House

Fresh out of the Army and without a career, Jerry Liu got lucky in 1972 when an acquaintance helped him land a job in commercial construction. "I started as a common laborer," Liu says.

Jerry Lui gives through Rebuilding Together

John Huba

Jerry Liu puts his skills to work for Rebuilding Together.

He is now an uncommonly dedicated volunteer. Liu, 61, puts his construction and contracting skills to work remodeling homes for Rebuilding Together, which helps low-income people, including the elderly and disabled, stay in safe, affordable housing.

Having built a thriving residential-remodeling business in suburban Montgomery County, Md. — a region near Washington, D.C., that's known for its affluence but is not without its poorer neighborhoods — Liu decided two decades ago it was time to repay the community where he eventually prospered.

"I can use my skills," he says. And that's much more satisfying than making a cash donation. Besides, back then, says Liu, "I didn't have any money, anyway!"

Liu once managed a renovation in the home of an 89-year-old war veteran, and their new friendship was one of the benefits of his work. The vet is an unheralded grass-roots activist in the Civil Rights Movement, Liu says, and his tiny house originally lacked indoor plumbing.

"Somebody enclosed a porch some years back and crammed in a bathroom and kitchen," he says. "If you're washing dishes in the sink, you're probably going to burn your shirt on the range. The bathroom shower stall is rusted out. You can't turn around in there."

The solution, Liu decided, was to tear down the enclosure and build a universally accessible replacement. His motto: "If we're going to do it, do it right."

Over the years Liu's employees, as well as subcontractors and other volunteers, have all contributed time and supplies to numerous such projects. "I don't know anyone who says, 'What's in it for me?' It's just, 'What do you need? I got it. It's on the way.' "

How it works. Join others in your community to repair the homes of low-income people, including those who are older or who have disabilities. You'll learn the necessary skills when you show up.
Time it takes.
As little as one day or can be an ongoing commitment.
Go to Rebuilding Together online or locate a local affiliate or call the national office at 800-473-4229.

Next: How much medicine does a person need?>>

Sharon Stephens — Help Others Manage Medications

It started out with a simple gesture. Sharon Stephens offered to help one of her neighbors in Manchester, N.H., organize and manage her medications.

An elder care specialist, Stephens, 64, knew about AARP's Rx Snapshot, an online "toolkit" anyone can download and print out by going to Create the Good online. Once completed, the toolkit's checklist makes it easy for patients to see exactly what medications they're taking, how much, and why.

Soon enough, word spread around Stephens's apartment building about this new way of managing prescription drugs, and others soon began asking for help. Stephens happily obliged, and for good reason.

In one case, Stephens worked with a 68-year-old woman who, in recording her medications, noted she was taking large amounts of vitamin C every day. Simultaneously, the woman was taking prescription medication for acid reflux.

"So here she was taking in too much acid from the vitamin C, and then she was taking acid reflux medication to stop it," Stephens says. "I asked her who told her to take all this vitamin C. She said she thought it would be a good idea."

The exercise, says Stephens, made the woman realize that she needed to heed the top advice from the toolkit: show doctors all the completed forms and talk to them about every supplement and medication listed.

Stephens, who's since moved to Nashua, says experiences like that are gratifying, because many people don't know when they are at risk for harmful drug and supplement interactions. "I just love it when you have these 'Aha!' moments with people and realize you've done something good," Stephens says.

How it works. Help relatives, friends or neighbors manage their medications safey, more effectively and more affordably. Ask them if they have a list of all the medications they’re taking, and if they don’t, help them to compile one. Encourage them to review the list with a pharmacist or physician. You can also organize a medication-review session at an event — for example, a health fair or flea market — and arrange for pharmacists to attend and review people's medications.
Time it takes.
You can help someone in a matter of minutes. Organizing an event requires a commitment of hours over a number of days.
Go to Rx Snapshot at Create the Good online.

Additional reporting by Derrick Z. Jackson, Marie Cocco and Mary Ann French.

AARP In Your State

Visit the AARP state page for information about events, news and resources near you.