Give Thanks & Give Back: 10 Ways To Volunteer Locally This Holiday Season

For many New Yorkers, holiday volunteering is a family tradition. For others, it keeps popping up on the to-do list. If it’s something your clan has been meaning to do, the city offers abundant opportunities to help.

In addition to soup kitchens (which, honestly, are up to their turkey basters in volunteers on Thanksgiving and Christmas days), there are opportunities to fit any budget, niche, interest level and timing window.

New York Cares’ Winter Wishes program connects donor families with another family’s wish list. photo via

If you’re good with scissors, you can wrap presents for the Salvation Army or Coalition for the Homeless. Like people? Consider spending an evening of Hanukkah with a Holocaust survivor. Got a strong back? Sign up at a food pantry. If you’re still interested in dishing up food–soup kitchens need your help, but maybe just offer your services at a less prime time. And if you are keen on serving at a soup kitchen on those two high-demand days—that’s great. Just call early. Volunteer spots fill up several weeks before the first tablecloths are laid out.

Maybe all you can swing is a $5 Lego. Do it! That’s more than some kids would’ve received without your gift. Just make sure to involve your little ones.

Rather than efficiently logging on to Amazon and having something delivered so you an drop it off at a Toys for Tots collection site on your way to pick up, it’s more meaningful for your child if they help with the shopping and dropping.

“It’s really not about giving money,” says Natalie Silverstein, New York-area coordinator of Doing Good Together, a year-old clearinghouse that sends out monthly emails with local family-friendly volunteer opportunities. “It’s more about having a hands-on experience. It’s easier for kids to understand the impact of their charitable giving if they can see the people that are really being impacted by their gift.”

Most organizations like for their volunteers to have hit double digits, often requiring volunteers to be at least 14 and sometimes 21. But some, like soup kitchens, will task young volunteers with setting the table, wrapping sandwiches to go, and cleaning up– under the instruction of their parents. For crafty but less mobile families with young children, check out Doing Good Together’s Big-Hearted Families and click on “pick a service project” to make cards, blankets and decorate lunch bags.

Idealist, GenerationOn, Hope for New York, Volunteer Match offer great volunteer activities for all times of the year. So does New York Cares. Here are a few more opportunities for holiday volunteering:

  • The Salvation Army needs volunteers to wrap donated gifts for a Christmas toy party, says Martherson Bernabe, program director at the Sally on Bushwick Avenue. Minors are welcome if they come with a parent. Volunteers should call 718-455-4102 x100 or other Salvation Army locations in their area.
  • Common Cents’ Penny Harvest has school children bring in loose change for feeding the hungry and other service projects.
  • In a pre-Thanksgiving food drive, City Harvest collects thousands of boxes of canned goods, boxes of cereal and jars of peanut butter and more to help feed the hungry. Many children donate through their schools. At the Winter Garden in the Financial District through Nov. 20, Canstruction features donated food shaped into cool designs like Thor’s Hammer, an American eagle and an astronaut.
  • Citymeals-on-Wheels is accepting applications for people to deliver meals on Christmas, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day.
  • Many alumni associations and civic groups put up giving trees where you select a child’s name and play Kris Kringle. Just make sure to involve your child in the selection and drop-off. They may even want to chip in and buy a gift with their own money.
  • At Family-to-Family, a donor child shops for a present they would like to receive themselves. But instead of emailing Santa, kids have their parents donate the value of that present. Family-to-Family buys gifts along with wrapping paper, ribbon and tape so parents can select a present, wrap it and present the gift as if they’d braved Black Friday themselves.

“In the end, another child gets a toy, but what’s really meaningful is for them to enable a mom and dad elsewhere in the country to be a giver,” says Pam Koner, executive director of Family-to-Family. “It’s double giving.” The group also offers a 12-month volunteer calendar marrying a volunteer and recipient.

The Jan Hus Presbyterian Church & Neighborhood House the Upper East Side is one of many religious groups that cater to the homeless all year round. While older volunteers fold clothes and help guests choose outfits from the clothing distribution center, tweens can sort donations for the food pantry as well as set tables, serve dessert and clear the table for the church’s Tuesday evening homeless dinners. Jan Hus will serve dinner the Tuesday two days before Thanksgiving—to volunteer, call 212-288-6743 x22.

The homeless shelter directory lists places where the homeless can get a meal every day of the week. Just call or email and ask when they need volunteers and if there is an age requirement.

Should you need a kick-in-the-pants to get started, Nov. 22 is Family Volunteer Day. Sponsored by GenerationOn (which also has a kids volunteer section), the day is designed to kick off the holiday season with service and service.

But feel free to offer up your services the other 364 days of the year.

Hillary Chura is a Manhattan mom and writer. She can be found on Twitter at @hillarychura.