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Making the holidays count: charities overwhelmed by traditional volunteers, suggest alternative methods

By Lauren Dantella

Point Park News Service

At the Jubilee Soup Kitchen, Uptown, Danny Jackson, of Natrona Heights, helps serve lunch, Wednesday, January 5th, 2011. Jackson and 6 other local students attending Notre Dame are participating in a program called the “Urban Plunge.” The students are spending time helping the homeless and experiencing life on the streets. (Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review)

A computer salesman was looking for holiday volunteer work and now helps the homeless with job skills.

Children from a local church pushed shopping carts and stocked shelves with donations from their food drive.

Duquesne University fraternities and sororities fill truckloads of toys for their own food drive.

The tradition of generous individuals offering a helping hand at food kitchens and other shelters during the holidays is always welcome, but coordinators such charities around the region say they’d prefer Good Samaritans to spread their volunteerism throughout the year.

Jay Poliziani, Director at North Side Common Ministries, says sometimes volunteer requests just are not practical.

“Right now where getting about two calls a day, which is okay if they’re flexible,” said Poliziani.

During the summer season, the charity gets about one call for a volunteer request per month. They recommend holiday volunteers help in other ways that would benefit them more.

“We had one guy that called to volunteer on Thanksgiving and now he’s a regular volunteer,” said Poliziani. “He teaches the guys here how to make a resume and do interviews.”

Volunteers often want to get their children involved though much of the volunteer work within the shelter itself is meant for adults only. Poliziani recommends kids host their own food or toy drive to have the same rewarding experience that is valuable and fun.

The Unitarian Universalist Church, also on the North Side, had kids participate in a unique food drive last year that gave them a hands-on experience in a kid-friendly way.

Children collected food and wheeled it up the street to North Side Common Ministries in shopping carts and stocked shelves with their donations, said Poliziani.

“Food drives are a great way kids can help because people are much more likely to give to kids,” said Poliziani.

Volunteering during the holidays is a popular team building activity for groups as well. Local churches, clubs, and groups of employee will come in to volunteer together. Last year a group of employees from the Ross Park Mall Cheesecake Factory volunteered to prepare and serve food at the shelter.

The organization hosts the largest food bank in Pittsburgh, serving 1,000 people a month in November and December; a homeless shelter that sleeps up to 30 every night; and soup kitchen three days a week. Their shelter is always full to capacity and they rely on volunteers and donations, so help is needed year round, said Poliziani.

Christine Gaus, Director of Services at the Brashear Association on the South Side, says the shelter faces the same dilemma with one-day help requests.

“It’s not so much that we have to turn people away,” said Gaus. “It’s just that it doesn’t match up.”

During the holidays the shelter gets the most requests to work with toy distribution for their toy drives.

“People like working one on one with the kids,” said Gaus. “I think people find it more rewarding.”

Gaus also recommends volunteers who want to assist in the toy drive sponsor their own. Large donations from independent food and toy drives are essential to their success, said Gaus. Brashear receives many sizable donations from Duquesne University fraternities and sororities from their own drives.

“We’ve gotten a lot from Duquesne Greek, it all ends up being a win-win,” said Gaus. “They have a toy drive; they have collected thousands of canned goods, they filled a truck with toys.”

Tracy Hudson, Volunteer Coordinator at the East End Cooperative Ministries, says their shelter and soup kitchen gets over 50 volunteer requests but can only accept 10 per day. The organization does need help with their meals on wheels program but volunteers usually are not in time to pass the clearance that can take 16-weeks.

“For Meals on Wheels we have difficulty,” said Hudson. “Volunteers just aren’t early enough to get the clearances.”

While these charities need help year round, they say they are grateful for the holiday help.

“It’s just a feeling of the season,” said Poliziani.


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