If you’re one of the approximately 7 billion people vowing to be better and do better in 2019, good news: The District and its surrounding neighborhoods are teeming with opportunities to make a difference. Many local organizations, in fact, couldn’t stay afloat without volunteers. Here are just seven of the many groups in need of assistance; while they vary in their causes — helping seniors, the vision-impaired or the four-legged among us — all are striving to improve life in D.C.
ACC DC Metro, a branch of the Ethiopian Community Development Council, helps refugees and those seeking asylum get settled in their new lives. The group was initially formed to serve the Ethiopian community, but it has expanded to include people from around the world. There are a variety of volunteer opportunities throughout the DMV region, but the most popular is First Friends, in which volunteers are matched with a refugee family, or a family seeking asylum, to help guide and mentor them. “The family could need help with English or with applying for jobs,” says resource development manager Yariana Rodriguez. “Or they might need to learn how to take the bus and be more integrated in their community.”
Someone’s got to preserve the monuments and memorials that define the District. The National Park Service’s National Mall and Memorial Park’s Volunteers-In-Parks program invites folks to lend a hand at more than 20 sites, including the Old Post Office Tower and the Lockkeeper’s House near Constitution Gardens. “Basically, they’re a docent like you’d expect at a museum — someone to be there and greet visitors and give a little history and answer questions,” says volunteer program manager Jason Cangelosi. “Sometimes with the newer memorials, they have connections, like the Vietnam wall; a lot of our volunteers over there are veterans. But others just pick the monument that speaks to them and where they want to work.”
The completely volunteer-run nonprofit Food for All DC provides food to low-income, homebound residents of the District — mostly people who are elderly or handicapped, plus single moms with little kids. Show up almost any Saturday at 8:55 a.m. and you’ll be put to work bagging groceries or driving deliveries to their destinations. “There’s no training — you can turn up, walk in and start helping,” says Graeme King, who’s been a volunteer coordinator with the group for nearly 10 years. “We deliver to 50 to 60 clients every Saturday morning, to people who can’t leave their homes due to physical and mental disabilities. We have [volunteers] who have been coming for years — literally from 1½ years old to 75. There are lots of young professionals, and it’s a great way to meet people.”
On Saturday mornings, People and Animal Cardio Klub (PACK) volunteers go walking or running with adoptable dogs from the District-based Humane Rescue Alliance. The group typically heads to Rock Creek Park or the National Arboretum; Lauren Lipsey, vice president of community programs, recommends that volunteers be active sorts, since the animals tend to have pent-up energy. “All week our dogs are living in kennels,” Lipsey says. “This is the one time a week when they get to go on a field trip and experience real-life activities, like walking on the street, seeing birds and smelling the scents of the park. It’s not just physical exercise, it’s mental exercise as well.” Volunteers are asked to commit to two outings per month and should have a vehicle to transport the dogs to the destinations.
Across the District, many homeless children who live in family shelters have no space to play, even in their rooms. That means they’re denied a crucial means to learning, healing and developing, says Nicolien Buholzer, volunteer program manager with the Homeless Children’s Playtime Project. The nonprofit organization partners with homeless shelters throughout the city to create fun and safe places for the kids, so they can play where they live. “It’s really incredible,” Buholzer says. “And what’s also incredible is that so much of it is powered through our volunteers” — or, as the group calls them, Play Rangers. “It’s a mix between Power Rangers and park rangers leading kids through play,” Buholzer says of the nickname. Weekly volunteers can choose the site and the evening of their work; the group requests a two-hour weekly commitment for six months, since consistency is good for the children.
The District-based nonprofit We Are Family Senior Outreach Network serves more than 700 seniors a month — and has only two paid staffers. “You can see how essential volunteers are to our work,” says co-executive director Mark Andersen, who runs the group with his wife, Tulin Ozdeger. We Are Family helps reach isolated seniors via advocacy, companionship and free services like monthly grocery delivery, transportation to stores and appointments, and emergency cleaning assistance. The group is busy year-round and welcomes volunteers of all ages; Andersen says he tries to pair relative newcomers to the District with long-term, lower-income residents who have lived here for decades. “What we’re about is trying to create a situation where folks in these communities can come together across race or class or age or culture or sexual orientation or religion, and discover that they’re sisters and brothers in one family and that we have to take care of each other.”
The need for volunteers at Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind “never stops,” says senior director of communications Jocelyn Hunter. The nonprofit helps blind and visually impaired people in the region overcome the challenges of their vision loss so they can achieve maximum levels of independence and activity. The biggest opportunity for volunteers, Hunter says, is for those who are 18 or older to provide one-on-one support. “These volunteers are assigned to adult clients who need help reading their mail, or organizing their payments or going to the grocery store,” she says — or, they may just want a friend to visit and spend time with them. The minimum commitment is four hours a month, but many volunteers choose to exceed that. “The stories are endless, where you see these relationships being formed and how they evolve,” Hunter says. “The volunteers become part of the clients’ lives — they become family members.”