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8 great places for families to volunteer with kids

Mandy Fields Yokim
October29/ 2014

During this time of year people are generally a little kinder, a little more helpful and a little more grateful for the important things in life. While we aspire to demonstrate these virtues to our children throughout the year, it is especially valuable to do so around the holidays–when we could all use a reminder that the best gifts in life can’t be wrapped. Good health, nourishing food, dependable medical care, love and affection – these things can too easily be taken for granted. It can be rewarding to seek out opportunities that encourage gratitude and foster a sense of good will toward others.

Here are 8 great family volunteer opportunities in Pittsburgh this holiday season. From helping animals to working with plants, from assisting senior adults to comforting families in need (both locally and globally), there is sure to be something on this list that will inspire your family to action.

Pittsburgh Cares

The mission of Pittsburgh Cares is simple–match up volunteers of all ages with volunteer opportunities that meet the needs of the Pittsburgh community. The goal is to make volunteering easy by providing an online calendar of options that can be filtered by categories like issue of interest and distance from your home. Since Pittsburgh Cares partners with a variety of nonprofits in the city, there are opportunities available to fit most any of your family’s charitable interests.

If you’d like to get a feel for volunteering together and do so alongside other families, Holly Turkovic, director of youth programs at Pittsburgh Cares, suggests attending Family Volunteer Day on Saturday, November 22nd from 8:30am-12pm at the Lincoln Park Community Center in Penn Hills. A variety of project stations will be set up and families can choose based on age of child and interest. Activities include making dresses for girls in Uganda, working in the food pantry and creating push toys for needy children. Kids should be 3+ to take part in the service activities although younger children are welcome to attend with their families.

Another Family Volunteer Day will  be held on Monday night, December 8th from 6pm-8pm. Volunteers at this event will assist with the Toys for Tots program, a partnership with the US Marine Corps Reserve to collect gifts and distribute them to families in need in the region. Family volunteers will help sort toys and fill orders for nonprofits. Each Family Day event incorporates education about the specific projects so that children and families can learn how they are making a difference. Pittsburgh Cares requests $20 per volunteer to help cover costs of materials, supplies and tools for the Family Volunteer Day events.

Family Volunteering at the Ronald McDonald House, Photo courtesy of RMHC
Family Volunteering at the Ronald McDonald House, Photo courtesy of RMHC

Ronald McDonald House Charities of Pittsburgh

The Ronald McDonald House Charities of Pittsburgh (RMHC) provides lodging and supportive services to families with seriously ill children who are receiving medical care at local hospitals. Morgan Barnes, volunteer coordinator with RMHC, offers several volunteer opportunities that are perfect for families. One of the most popular options is the Prepare a Meal Program where families with children of all ages can go to the house kitchen and prepare a home-cooked meal for residents. Another option is the Family Social Hour, where volunteers can plan fun activities, crafts or performances for the resident families.  For an at-home volunteer project, families can decorate Welcome Bags and fill them with handmade cards, magazines, notebooks, toiletries and other items that would be helpful for residents.

Open Your Heart to a Senior

Open Your Heart to a Senior is a volunteer recruitment initiative which focuses on matching volunteers with senior adults who need assistance to live independently. Each year nearly 600 seniors are enrolled in the program for needs that range from friendly visits and home-cooked meal delivery to property maintenance and rides to the doctor’s office or grocery store. Nearly 20 local nonprofit agencies work with this organization to match up volunteers so there are many ways to offer a lending hand. Nancy Jones, project coordinator at Open Your Heart to a Senior, says that good projects for families this time of year might include raking leaves for a senior who is not physically able to do it themselves. Another great option for families is the Snow Angels program, which is an Allegheny County initiative to help senior adults with snow removal from sidewalks and walkways.

Volunteering in the garden with Grow Pittsburgh, Photo courtesy of Grow Pittsburgh
Volunteering in the garden with Grow Pittsburgh, Photo courtesy of Grow Pittsburgh

Grow Pittsburgh

Grow Pittsburgh’s mission is to educate the public about urban agriculture and to demonstrate how important gardening and fresh foods can be to the health of a community. Through programs like the Edible Schoolyard, Grow Pittsburgh integrates gardening into the classroom. At garden sites like Braddock Farms, the organization grows and harvests food to sell to the public and local restaurants. Kate Hickey, director of operations at Grow Pittsburgh, says that families can participate in a variety of volunteer projects including garden maintenance and building, harvesting and weeding. Each month from April through November, families can check the Grow Pittsburgh calendar for monthly volunteer projects and various garden sites around the city. On November 15 at the Braddock Farms site from 10am to 2pm, families can assist with fall harvesting activities.

Animal Rescue League Shelter & Wildlife Center

The Animal Rescue League takes in and cares for almost 13,000 animals each year. With an Open Door policy, the shelter never refuses an animal in need and there is no time limit on an animal’s stay. The goal of the Animal Rescue League is to care for all animals until they can be adopted into a loving, permanent home or rehabilitated back into the wild. While onsite volunteers need to be 18+ years old, families are encouraged to foster animals in their homes. Monica Garcia, volunteer manager at the Animal Rescue League, says that both kittens and puppies often need a foster home while they grow more, since animals must weigh 2lbs and be at least 2 months old to be spayed or neutered and placed up for adoption. Fostering may be necessary, also, for animals who are being treated for illness or recovering from medical procedures. An animal may need to be fostered for a few days or a few weeks after which time they are returned to the shelter to find a permanent home.

global links

Global Links

Global Links offers medical relief to resource-poor communities in Latin America and the Caribbean by providing health clinics with still-useful surplus materials that have been salvaged from hospitals in the United States. With this combination of a social and environmental mission, Global Links supports public health in other countries while also redirecting hundreds of tons of items from the landfill. Stacy Bodow, community engagement manager with Global Links, welcomes families to volunteer with sorting and packing medical supplies. She suggests that the optimal age for children to volunteer is 8+ and all volunteer shifts last 2 hours. In addition to regular volunteer slots throughout the week, Global Links has two upcoming shifts specifically for families: Tuesday, November 25th from 6pm-8pm and Saturday, December 13th from 10am-12pm.

South Hills Interfaith Ministries

South Hills Interfaith Ministries is a human services organization that provides resources and support programs to families in need. During the holiday season, South Hills Interfaith Ministries organizes the Angel Emporium Gift Drive which allows needy families to “shop” for other family members at no cost to them. Kids can shop for parents in one “store” while parents “shop” in a different store. Packages are wrapped after they are chosen. Last year the Angel Emporium was able to provide gifts for 848 people. Christy Stuber, volunteer initiatives director with the United Way of Allegheny County, suggests two ways that families can support the Angel Emporium. First, volunteers are needed to help organize gift donations from November 24th through December 5th between the hours of 9am and 4pm. Second, volunteers will be needed to help families ‘shop’ for the gifts during the week of December 8th through 11th between the hours of 3:30pm and 8:00pm. Another option is to donate a gift or organize a gift donation drive. Donation collections are held between October 27th and December 1st.

North Hills Community Outreach

North Hills Community Outreach is a human services organization that assists families dealing with crisis, hardship and poverty. Through a variety of different programs, the organization helps families regain self-sufficiency and improve quality of life. Linda Robins, volunteer coordinator for North Hills Community Outreach, says that seasonal sharing projects are a good way to get involved this time of year. The Thanksgiving on Every Table project distributes more than 750 complete dinners each year to people in need. Volunteer families can donate all or some of the items from the ‘complete dinner’ list or even organize a collection in their neighborhood or church. Another seasonal sharing project is the Winter Coat Shop, which last year distributed nearly 1,000 gently-used coats to children and adults. Volunteer families can donate clean coats with working zippers and buttons, as well as other winter gear like hats and mittens, to the Coat Shop. There are themed sharing projects throughout the year, including Back to School collection in late summer/early fall. During the spring and summer, families can assist in the community garden with planting and harvesting.

There are so many wonderful organizations in Pittsburgh that are working to strengthen the community and make positive changes. Volunteering together as a family at any one of these organizations can send a powerful message to your children that you value helping others. It can be empowering for children to feel like they can make a positive contribution in their community. Here’s to a joyful holiday season filled with thankfulness and kindness – happy volunteering!

Mandy Fields Yokim

Mandy Fields Yokim is a nationally published writer and editor based in the Pittsburgh area. Her work has appeared in Parents Magazine, Blue Ridge Country Magazine, NEXTpittsburgh, Kidsburgh, TEQ Magazine, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and nearly 20 parenting publications across the United States and Canada. Her blog posts have appeared online at Pittsburgh Magazine, Kid World Citizen and Wonderaddo, the global education initiative she founded in 2013 to encourage kids and families to explore the world in Pittsburgh. She is contributing editor of regional books such as Grit, Smoke and Steam, Ultimate Pittsburgh Trivia and Bridges of Pittsburgh.