Every year starting in mid-November, things get hectic and it becomes impossible to even think about adding to our already full plates. But the holidays are a great time to start volunteering and give total strangers an extremely valuable gift: the gift of your time.
Volunteering isn’t entirely selfless—it’s mutually beneficial. In addition to making the world a better place, you’ll be rewarded emotionally, socially, and professionally—in fact, research has linked volunteering to reducing symptoms of depression and elongating life span. So if you’re looking to give and make some friends, hone professional skills, or combat the winter blues while you’re at it, check out these ideas and get started.
SANTA’S LITTLE HELPER: HOLIDAY SPECIFIC IDEAS
Take initiative and plan a toy drive. Who doesn’t love seeing a child’s huge smile as he or she tears open a gift? Encourage your friends, family, and co-workers to buy a gift for a child who wouldn’t normally receive a gift or celebrate Christmas. Coloring books, craft kits (remember these!?), and action figures are all fairly inexpensive and guaranteed to make a kid’s day. You can even have some fun with a gift-wrapping party where you enjoy cookies and hot chocolate as you chat and wrap with your closest friends. As for where to donate, national charities that accept toy donations include Toys for Tots and The Salvation Army, but you can also consider donating to hospitals, women shelters, and other local organizations that might work with children.
Spread holiday cheer to the elderly, disabled, or sick. Check in with your neighborhood hospitals and nursing homes to see if you can help decorate common areas with paper snowflakes and tinsel. Or get in touch with your inner child and gather some friends to decorate holiday cards for patients and nursing home residents—simply use plain white paper or construction paper and go to town with markers, crayons, and glitter glue.
RESOLVE TO GIVE: LONGER-TERM PROJECTS
It’s not too early to make resolutions and commit to mentoring a child in your communitythrough programs like Mentoring USA and Big Brothers Big Sisters. We especially love this kind of volunteering because you get to foster a lasting, personal relationship with someone else. Mentoring has been shown to improve self-esteem and academic attitudes in at-risk children and teenagers—and you’ll be able to see your mentee evolve over time.
For college students, volunteering can also be a great way to practice professional skills like writing, marketing, and project management—all while doing good in your community. Likewise, volunteering can be a gateway to exploring different professional paths or testing whether a particular career is a good fit for you. We recommend using websites like volunteermatch.org and idealist.org through which you can find projects and volunteer opportunities specific to your skill set and interests, whether you’re keen on interacting with the needy or enjoy behind-the-scenes work like fundraising.
PAY IT FORWARD: LITTLE THINGS THAT COUNT
If you’re really strapped for time and can’t formally volunteer, there are still little acts of kindness that can brighten and change someone’s day. Hold the door open for the person behind you, smile at the Starbucks barista when you place your order, return a stranded shopping cart to the supermarket, write an email to someone you haven’t talked to in a while, compliment someone you don’t know, or thank your parents for being amazing supporters. Whatever you do, no kind act is too small. And kindness is contagious. If you do something nice for someone else, chances are they’ll feel uplifted and be more inclined to help someone else themselves. Even the smallest acts can contribute to making your community a happier, kinder place—that’s what we’d argue the so-called holiday spirit is all about.