Are you thinking about volunteering this Martin Luther King Jr. Day? Instead of giving your time for just one day, consider challenging yourself to a year of service.
For many, that commitment sounds intimidating — life is busy, free time is scarce — but the rewards of regular volunteering often go beyond that of one day.
“Our long-term volunteers … wind up building a community among themselves,” said JodyAnn McIntosh, the manager of community engagement and volunteer services at nutrition nonprofit MANNA. “They take their relationships outside of MANNA, like to dinners and birthday parties.”
In some cases, regular service leads to professional passion. Kristin Groenveld, the executive director of education nonprofit Art Sphere, described volunteers that went on to become teachers, artists, and leaders of other nonprofits.
"We also write our volunteers recommendation letters that help them get jobs or into graduate programs,” Groenveld said.
Whatever your reasons for getting involved long-term, it’s important to pick the right opportunity for you — that way, you’ll be motivated to show up week after week. Here are some points to consider when you decide to get involved.
You should volunteer for a cause you feel passionate about, especially if you’re making a long-term commitment. Whether it’s serving the homeless, underserved students, immigrants, or the environment, make sure you pick something that is near and dear to your heart. Serve Philadelphia’s website allows you to search keywords and locations to find opportunities that fit your passion. Visit serve.volunteermatch.org to explore what’s around you.
Volunteering is all about using your skills to help others (and maybe discovering a few new ones in the process). For example, a lawyer might volunteer his or her services pro bono. But if you don’t want to spend your off-hours doing what you do professionally, you can still play to your strengths. Make a list of the soft skills your job requires of you — like interpersonal communication or organization — and match those to what an organization is looking for. That way, you’ll avoid burnout and exhaustion.
Long-term volunteers (and even some short-term ones) should expect to jump through a couple of hoops. Most volunteer organizations require you to fill out an intake form to explain your interest and provide basic contact information. Some require interviews or training before you can get started in earnest.
If you’re looking to volunteer for an organization that works with youths, Pennsylvania state law requires volunteers to clear the following background checks: the Pennsylvania State Police criminal record check, the Pennsylvania child-abuse history clearance, the federal criminal history background check, or the FBI clearance waiver for volunteers who have lived here for 10 or more years. If you already have those clearances as part of your employment or other volunteer services — and if they were issued within the past 60 months — you can submit them to other organizations.
Organizations in New Jersey require similar clearances and can be contacted directly for details.
Nonprofits might ask regular volunteers to give as much time as a few hours a week or as little as a couple afternoons per month. The biggest thing they’re looking for is regularity. If you say you’re going to show up every Tuesday evening, they’re counting on you, so mark off that time as early as possible. Obviously things come up in life and most organizations are understanding, but if you plan around your volunteering engagements, they’ll appreciate it.
If you’re still not sure about where to start, don’t worry. You can spend some time with different organizations and causes to see what fits best. To get you started, here are just a handful of organizations with long-term volunteering opportunities that are also hosting Martin Luther King Jr. Day events. That way, you can get an idea before making a more extensive commitment. (Find many more volunteering opportunities at mlkdayofservice.org.)
MANNA feeds people in Philly with life-threatening illnesses, packing more than 70,000 nutritious meals each month. The group is always looking for more volunteers to help with delivering the meals and cooking food in its kitchens — something that regular volunteers can get a reputation for, according to JodyAnn McIntosh.
“We know who to count on to come in every week and bake really amazing brownies,” she said.
You can get a taste of what volunteering at MANNA is like on Martin Luther King Jr. Day at their food-packing event. Volunteers will be chopping vegetables, packing meals, filling meal trays, and baking.
If you love getting creative, this nonprofit teaches art to inner-city low-income youth. It holds after-school programs and community art events, collaborates on public murals, and hosts workshops on art-driven conflict resolution. On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Art Sphere is prepping art projects for preschoolers and making Valentine’s Day cards for homeless veterans and senior citizens.
Art Sphere also requires all long-term volunteers to go through a 10-week training with a commitment of three hours per week. Volunteers can either participate in teaching, one-on-one work, or administrative tasks.
In order to work directly with children during Art Sphere’s regular workshops and events, you have to send the organization your resume, pass a background check, get child-abuse clearance, and get fingerprinted by the FBI. All the forms and information you need for this are on the organization’s website.
This Chester County organization is trying to end family homelessness. It has an emergency shelter for homeless families, and it provides financial assistance and support to help families become independent in 12 to 18 months. Volunteers can provide help for group projects, administrative tasks, seasonal programming, and more. On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the Friends Association is looking for volunteers to help clean up their shelter and yard.
HIAS Pennsylvania offers supportive services to immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers in the Philadelphia metropolitan area. Volunteers can help in various ways, such as accompanying immigrants to important appointments or picking up groceries for families. HIAS also works with lawyers, health-care professionals, and communications specialists to provide legal advice, medical care, and more to those who need its services. For college students, HIAS offers internships if you’re looking to gain experience working with a nonprofit. On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the organization will be beautifying Penn’s Civic House, where HIAS holds much of its refugee youth-education programming.
The Camden County Pop-Up Library gives books away where there’s no access to libraries, in places such as food pantries, homeless shelters, and Salvation Army locations. The organization relies on “book foot soldiers," volunteers who take on the role of librarians, to plan and man the pop-ups. Individuals and groups can volunteer; they’ll receive books to give away and a list of suggested locations to set up but otherwise have complete freedom over their pop-up libraries. If you’re interested, learn more about the pop-up library’s efforts on Martin Luther King Jr. Day at Rutgers University’s Camden campus.