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.
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.
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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Contact. Go to Rebuilding Together online or locate a local affiliate or call the national office at 800-473-4229.
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.