Giving -- and Receiving

By Moira E. McLaughlin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 12, 2008

I've always regretted not devoting a year of my life to some kind of service after college. I was too clueless and selfish to think much about that then. But as I have gotten older, the words "To whom much is given, much is expected" have taken on real meaning.

So a couple of years ago, I began teaching a GED class in Northwest Washington. I felt so bad that these people, so wanting to enhance their lives, were relying on me. They were from all backgrounds: quiet Meseret from Ethiopia, who often sat next to Faven from Eritrea; Dominique, a native Washingtonian who talked about "stooping" with his brothers and watching the "ladies"; and the determined Taiwanese woman whose name I never could remember.

I wish I had some feel-good story about how I changed a frustrated student's life. In reality, it took me about six months to realize that no one knew what I was talking about when I referred to a "paragraph."

That's not to say I think that my class and I were unsuccessful. Eventually, I did teach them about paragraphs, and they taught me about respect. That's really what my students sought in earning their GED: respect. I realized that wasn't too far off from what we all seek in our lives.

What follows are a few volunteer opportunities to get you thinking. Some require specific time commitments; others are more "drop-in." And although this time of year seems the natural time to want to help, the reality is that people in need will appreciate your time as much in February as now. We've grouped these by category so you can find where your interests and the community's needs intersect.

Helping Kids
Horton's Kids, Washington

What is it? Karin Walser was inspired to start Horton's Kids after a group of teenagers approached her on Capitol Hill, wanting to pump her gas in 1989. She befriended the kids and started taking them on field trips on the weekends. Today, the nonprofit group serves about 144 kids from Anacostia, offering tutoring, mentoring and field trips.

How can you help? Tutor a kid ages 4 to 18 at the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill, Mondays or Tuesdays from 6:30 to 8 p.m.

Who volunteers? "Anybody who wants to make a difference," said Lindsy Pietroski, communications and development director. "It's such a rewarding volunteer opportunity, and you can really get to know the child and you get to see the difference you're making in their lives."

Why do it? "I love it," said Will Griffith, 29, who has been volunteering with Horton's Kids for more than two years. "I feel we can really see the positive influence we're making on the children, and honestly, they're a lot of fun to be around. Some of the things that come out of their mouths, you wouldn't believe it. They're absolutely hilarious."

Where to start? Go to to download the volunteer application and tutor background questionnaire, or e-mail or call 202-544-5033, Ext. 5. Volunteers must go through a background check and orientation; they are asked to commit to three tutor training sessions and then one evening a week for a school year. Those with less time can tutor with a partner or be a floater twice a month.

St. Ann's Infant and Maternity Home, Maryland

What is it? St. Ann's in Hyattsville is home to about 25 abused, neglected or abandoned kids, newborn to age 12, and 17 teen mothers with their babies.

How can you help? Play and help with the kids.

Who volunteers? The ideal volunteer is "somebody who comes regularly, wants to work in whatever capacity is best for us, somebody who has very good people skills, somebody who is willing to do the glamorous and not-so-glamorous work, just somebody who is going to embrace the mission," said Sister Mary Bader, St. Ann's administrator.

Why do it? "The children and the need. There's always a need for them to see other people and see who loves them and cares about them," said Trudy Conrad, who has been volunteering at St. Ann's for more than 40 years. She comes Wednesday evenings during family visiting hours to play bingo with the kids who have no one visiting. "I've gained the world, the friendship of the workers and the love of the kids," Conrad said. She also warns that volunteers have to be prepared for sad cases of abuse. "You do what you can for them," she said.

Where to start? The application process is extensive and includes a criminal background check, health screening, interview and reference checks. E-mail or call 301-559-5500.

Childhelp, Virginia

What is it? The Northern Virginia center has been open since 2002 with the goal of "preventing the children from falling through the cracks," said Nicholas Hudson, the volunteer program manager. Childhelp offers mentoring and tutoring to kids ages 9 to 18.

How can you help? Tutor a child two hours a week for a year. You work out a time to pick up the child and take him or her to a library or bookstore to study.

Who volunteers? "Young working professionals who just have a desire to effect change in these children's lives, who enjoy working with children, who want to give back to the community," Hudson said.

Why do it? "Just watching her grades go up and her interest in school as a whole has been remarkable," said Emily Wilson, 25, who has been working with an eighth-grader in Falls Church for eight months. "I've learned so much from her. She comes from a completely different background. It builds a friendship, too," she said.

Where to start? Call 703-208-1500 to ask for an application and start the four- to six-week process that includes an application, a one-hour interview, two background checks, a driving-record check and an all-day training session. Tutors also must attend a two-hour refresher class every six months.

Helping the Homeless
D.C. Jewish Community Center Behrend Builders, Washington

What is it? About 15 years ago, the D.C. Jewish Community Center began Behrend Builders as "a way to give opportunities to Jewish families to do stuff in the community," said Randy Bacon, director of Behrend Builders.

How can you help? Help renovate and repair low-income family homes, community centers, homeless and transitional centers, and public schools in the area every day except Saturdays.

Who volunteers? "[Anyone] is really good for us, but sometimes we need skilled volunteers like a plumber or electrician," Bacon said. "Typically, we get from 14-year-olds to 80-year-olds. A good percentage is Jewish but by no means everybody."

Why do it? "At the end of the day or half-day, you can look up and see progress. You've helped people with their housing, and at the same time you've helped [volunteers] learn some [skills]," said Kenton Campbell, 57, a semi-retired contractor who works on 15 to 18 projects a year with the group.

Where to start? Call 202-777-3244 or e-mail

Habitat for Humanity Of Northern Virginia

What is it? Habitat for Humanity is an international organization, started in 1976, that builds houses for low-income people. Habitat in Northern Virginia has built homes for 65 families since 1990.

How can you help? In the next month, Habitat will start building a nine-unit condominium called Maple Ridge just west of Fairfax City, working Wednesdays and Saturdays.

Who volunteers? You don't have to be a construction worker to volunteer. You just have to be at least 16 years old. When you get on-site, seek out the leaders in red caps and yellow shirts who can instruct you.

Why do it? "You get to work with or next to the homeowner," said Walt Coleman, 70, a retiree. "You certainly appreciate how significant this house will be to them and their family. The biggest pleasure is to build a house for some people who couldn't afford it otherwise. Their appreciation for the people who've helped build it with them is extraordinary."

Where to start? Go to to sign up for a day to work, or call 703-521-9890, Ext. 111. The schedule for the new work site will be available by the end of the month. A perk to Habitat: You need not commit more than a few hours for one day.

So Others Might Eat, Washington

What is it? The Rev. Horace McKenna started SOME in 1970, serving meals out of the St. Aloysius Church basement. Today, SOME serves 800 to 1,000 meals a day, seven days a week at 71 O St. NW.

How can you help? SOME needs 15 to 25 volunteers per meal, especially on Mondays and Tuesdays. Since the holidays are a popular time to volunteer, SOME really needs volunteers the first two weeks of January.

Who volunteers? School groups, businesses, retirees: "Anyone that's willing to give up their time," said Don Dixon, director of volunteer and food services.

Why do it? "What I hear a lot is, people are amazed at the number of people who come in looking for meals," Dixon said.

Where to start? E-mail or call 202-797-0701, Ext. 2113.

Helping the Elderly
Daughter for the Day, Maryland

What is it? Tonja Lark started Daughter for the Day after she noticed an elderly woman outside a Temple Hills grocery store about three years ago. Lark helped the woman home, and the idea for her unique nonprofit group was born. Today, about 300 volunteers, both men and women, help the elderly in Washington, Maryland and Virginia by taking them to the grocery store, to the doctor or on whatever errands they have.

How can you help? Daughter serves about 900 seniors with a waiting list of 75 more needing assistance with daily outings.

Who volunteers? "We have a wide range," Lark said. "We have retirees, federal workers who get the day off, teachers, Metrobus drivers who have the day off, postal workers, nurses, stay-at-home moms that put their kids in day care."

Why do it? "I enjoy doing it," said Annette Stonework, a retiree who helps one to three seniors a week for two to three hours each. "I meet a variety of people. I hear a variety of seniors' stories and also a lot of historical facts. . . . I really enjoy being around them. They're a lot of fun."

Where to start? Call 301-203-7050 or e-mail The application includes a criminal background check, a driving-record check and orientation.

Helping the Sick
Food & Friends, Washington

What is it? Food & Friends started in 1988 with one friend bringing a meal to another friend with HIV/AIDS. Today, the nonprofit group delivers prepared meals and groceries to more than 1,400 sick individuals in Washington, Maryland and Virginia.

How can you help? Prepare and package meals or deliver them.

Who volunteers? Members of religious organizations and social clubs, one-time volunteers and those who have been helping for 15 years.

Why do it? Pete Clifford, 72, started volunteering at Food & Friends more than 10 years ago as something to do in his retirement. "[HIV/AIDS] was just not something that came into my worldview," said the retired Army colonel. "But obviously once I became involved I started meeting those passionate about it because they were personally affected by it." He became so impassioned that he cycled about 5,000 miles in three years throughout North America on AIDS bike rides, raising $120,000. "It became who I was and what I did," he said.

Where to start? Go to and click on "volunteer" to sign up for an orientation at one of four sites or call 202-269-2277.

Helping Adults
Catholic Charities, Washington

What is it? Catholic Charities offers one-on-one tutoring at its 924 G St. NW location to about 70 students seeking to earn their high school equivalency.

How can you help? Volunteers commit two hours a week whenever it is convenient for them and the students.

Who volunteers? Mostly D.C. professionals, ages 30 to 40, who work downtown.

Why do it? "I had a good public school education, and I really think that everybody should have that," said Lois Fischbeck, 58, who has been tutoring for about two years. Plus, "I'm just really inspired by the people I have been able to work with," she said.

Where to start? Call Tiffany Tan, program manager, at 202-772-4303.

Reston Interfaith, Virginia

What is it? Reston Interfaith teaches English as a Second Language in Reston on Sundays from 3 to 5 p.m., and in Herndon on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 7 to 8:30 p.m.

How can you help? You don't have to commit right away to standing in front of a class. You can shadow a teacher or teach a class with a friend.

Who volunteers? "The main qualification is getting involved and making a difference in our community," said Susan Stolpe, the volunteer manager. "The most important attribute and the thing that we look for when new volunteers come to us is a passion and an interest and a willingness to have fun and also be flexible." Never taught before? Don't know a lick of Spanish? No problem. Volunteers "all bring different experiences, different passions, different ways and styles of teaching," Stolpe said.

Why do it? "I feel pretty strongly that immigrants should feel welcome in America," said Scott Baker, 56, who has been teaching for about a year. "It just seemed like an opportunity for me to do something that I felt pretty strongly was a good thing."

Where to start? Call 571-323-9565 or e-mail to RSVP to an orientation session, when you will meet with staff to discuss your volunteer desires. Application includes a background check.

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