The Power of Positive Volunteering

Like most nonprofits, both of the Houston-based organizations highlighted in this month’s blog offer volunteer opportunities to make the holidays special for others.   But what makes them so successful?

The first nonprofit, YMCA International Services is the only YMCA of its kind in the country. There is no swimming pool. There is no gym. Instead, there are bustling offices where multiple languages are being spoken all at once: Swahili, Arabic, Kinyarwanda, French – it’s a mini-United Nations! It is also the center of the universe for refugees who have been resettled to Houston after years, perhaps decades, of living outside their native countries in refugee camps. Instead of teaching aerobics, this YMCA staff, most of whom came to the US in the same way, meets the newcomers at the airport, sets them up in an apartment, and takes responsibility for their cultural orientation. They help the children to enter school and the parents to find work. In 2010 alone, 730 individuals were granted asylum to Houston, typically arriving with nothing. Every year at this time, YMCA International Services hosts an Adopt-A-Family program. Each refugee family fills out a “Wish List” of essential items that they need, in order to get a start on their life here. The list includes everything from bedding and small appliances, to winter jackets and shoes, along with sizes. Gently used items are gladly accepted. To help fill a family’s list, e-mails must be sent by December 17 to Ms. Patty Schnabel at: Ms. Patty will also arrange for gifts to be delivered in person, along with an interpreter to facilitate communication with the recipient family’s members.

If you’ve ever driven past Palmer Church in the Medical Center early on a weekday morning, you may have noticed roughly 300 people standing in the front parking lot. These are homeless individuals, most of whom have just arrived by bus from a shelter, and who are waiting to enter the Way Stationto receive a free, stick-to-the-ribs breakfast, simple toiletries, and their mail – all from the hands of volunteers. Volunteer teams are often members of civic groups or local students. However, many of the “regulars” go away over the holidays, and extra volunteers are needed. Between the hours of 6 and 9:30 am (breakfast is served at 8), there are jobs to fit every level of expertise: from cooking, to serving, to handing out personal items.There is a Way Station Orientation on the website that further describes each task. Way Station clients are treated with dignity and respect, and interaction with the volunteers is encouraged. After working at the Way Station, it is easy to understand why there are so many “regulars” who have been volunteering there for years. The Way Station organizer is Mr. Terry Henry, and it is always best to e-mail him first, in order to find out which days volunteers are needed the most:

What makes these two programs successful is that they both offer a variety of options for volunteers to fulfill and, more importantly, volunteers are able to connect with the clients. When you personally deliver gifts to a refugee family, or serve breakfast to a homeless person, you come to understand the significance of the contribution that you are making, and the fact that the person receiving it really isn’t so different from you. Philanthropy depends as much upon volunteering, as it does on monetary donations. If you don’t already have volunteers who are “regulars”, you might want to take a closer look at the volunteer experience that you are offering them.

Happy Volunteering, and Best Wishes for the Holidays from Aurora Grants & Consulting! See you in 2011.

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Richard Beeman