This time of year, many of us are trying to hold ourselves to those promises we made sometime around midnight on December 31. But whether or not our efforts to personally be better fail, there aren’t many excuses to not practice goodwill towards others. In Chicago, it’s easier than ever to find volunteer opportunities thanks to sites like Chicago Cares, One Good Deed Chicago, and VolunteerMatch. To follow their lead, we’re highlighting over two dozen more local organizations where you can help out your fellow Windy City dwellers. In many cases, even a little effort or a modest donation might just be life-changing for someone in need.
Promote children's literacy and spark creativity
It's easy to help out at Open Books, whether you want to just drop off some used tomes, shelve and pack up donations in the West Loop or Pilsen bookstores, or jump into one of their many reading and creating writing programs for Chicago Public Schools students. Similarly, volunteer-run writing and publishing programs at 826CHI are supported by other creative do-gooders operating the adjacent Secret Agent Supply Co store, which sells espionage-themed gadgets and toys to benefit the organization.
Empower incarcerated women with books
While the women of Orange is the New Black's fictional Litchfield Correctional Facility regularly hit the prison library stacks for new reads, the ones in real prisons can be barren. Volunteers at Chicago Books to Women in Prison make it easier for female inmates nationwide to access better reading material, both educational and entertaining. Help fulfill their requests by donating your old paperbacks (dictionaries are requested most), or giving money, especially for postage.
Provide guidance for low-income community college students
According to One Million Degrees, "65% of Illinois public college students attend community college, but only one in five of them graduate with a degree within three years." That's why the organization's volunteer coaches help guide low-income community college students in their academic, professional, and personal pursuits. Give scholars some pointers at annual "It's Who You Know" speed-networking events or commit to a longer-term relationship by working one-on-one throughout the year as a coach.
Teach English as a second language
Rogers Park adults at the Howard Area Community Center are seeking help for everything from learning to speak English to earning a GED. As a tutor, you can make their lives brighter by breaking language barriers, teaching kids how to use computers, and helping former inmates find jobs.
Mentor underprivileged youth
Becoming a “Big” is kind of a huge deal. You're helping shape a kid’s future through Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Chicago, which matches volunteers with children in the city who need mentorship the most. Littles bond with their Bigs through on-site one-on-one and group activities, as well as outings in the communities.
Be a stylist for job-seeking men and women
People throughout the city turn to Bridge to Success for help entering or re-entering the workforce with their best shoe forward. You can serve as a stylist and/or personal shopper, helping them build confidence by selecting job-appropriate attire in the Bottomline Resale Boutique's laid-back setting. In addition, volunteer boutique assistants are needed to accept clothing and accessory donations, manage inventory, and build in-store displays.
Care for impoverished youth
The Night Ministry has a number of outreach services and programs that deal with housing, medical needs, and parenting, all with a “non-judgmental” bent. Volunteers can help by sharing meals with teens at The Crib, an LGBT-friendly environment in Lakeview; job coaching at the Open Door Shelter; handing out “sack suppers” from the Health Outreach Bus; organizing safe-sex or personal-care kits; and throwing parties for teen moms and their kids.
Welcome newly arriving families and help them build a life in Chicago through RefugeeOne. The organization assists refugees with finding homes, learning English, gaining job skills, and much more. And if you’re in the position to do so, they’ll help you hire one of their clients. Additionally, Chicago- and Austin-based GirlForward matches women mentors with adolescent refugee girls for weekly mentoring and tutoring. To advocate for Chicago’s Muslim community, CAIR Chicago offers a variety of volunteer roles, such as community outreach, tutoring, event planning, etc., as well as forms to report hate crimes and instances of media bias.
Provide tenants' rights information
If you've ever been on the hunt for solid answers to housing questions, like whether it's really OK for your landlord to still be "fixing" the heat after it's been off for most of January, you know how hard it is to find reliable information on the legalities of being a renter. Metropolitan Tenants' Rights hotline is so good at providing it that over half of the people answering the phone are former callers.
Support people with disabilities
KEEN Chicago’s program helps instill confidence in kids with disabilities, working with them in non-competitive, one-to-one fitness programs. Volunteers don't need to be athletic or have prior experience working with individuals with disabilities -- they'll receive helpful coaching tips catered specifically to their athlete’s needs.
At The Chicago Lighthouse, you can lead art classes for seniors and even be a newscaster for the radio station of this social service organization serving the blind, visually impaired, disabled, and veteran communities.
Anixter Center supports children, teens, and adults with disabilities in their efforts to "live, learn, work, and play in their communities." Try out a volunteer role -- whether it's for a specific project or several hours a week -- as a tutor, mock job interviewer, storyteller, musician, or even an adaptive-toy assembler.
Support those with mental illnesses
Give hope to those struggling with mental illness in the greater Chicago area as a volunteer at NAMI Chicago or Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance. DBSA needs people to work their informational hotline while at NAMI Chicago, you can be a support group facilitator or share your story about mental illness, whether it’s your own or that of a family member, through their community programs.
With one in six Cook County residents turning to the Greater Chicago Food Depository each year, the nonprofit food distribution and training center could use your help. Sort, repack, and distribute fresh and non-perishable food for families and individuals, many of whom are children, seniors, and veterans.
Meals on Wheels Chicago relies on volunteers to bring warm, nutritious meals to homebound seniors and people with disabilities, who might otherwise have difficulty preparing healthy food. On top of that, you could be providing companionship to someone who might really need it.
Get your hands dirty
Use your green thumb to give back at one of the city's farmers markets like Green City Market, food co-ops like Pilsen-based Edible Alchemy, urban farms like the Iron Street Urban Farm, greenhouses like Kilbourn Park Organic Greenhouse, a number of small community garden spaces, or even out at the Chicago Botanic Garden. You'll get opportunities to do everything from garden maintenance and organizing produce to updating websites and helping with chef demos and educational programs.
Build a better Chicago, literally
It doesn't get any more hands-on than Chicagoland Habitat for Humanity, where volunteers participate at construction sites, work on “A Brush with Kindness” repair projects, and run the Habitat ReStores, which sell used goods, furniture, and more to help fund the charity.
Help seniors stay independent
H.O.M.E.'s services help low-income seniors live on their own for as long as possible by enlisting volunteer support to weatherize homes in the cold months, paint in the summer, and make other repairs throughout the year. And like Meals on Wheels, it’ll likely lead to you making a new, older friend or two.
Fight climate change
Chicago Conservation Corps teamed with the Chicago Academy of Sciences / Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum and other city partners to recruit and train volunteers to spruce up their neighborhoods and create more sustainable living through environmental service projects. Some are one-time events, while others might be long-term endeavors you can lead in your community.
Put your computer skills to use
FreeGeek Chicago turns old computers and parts into working systems to help economically disadvantaged Chicagoans access the internet and learn programs. Volunteers spend time dismantling and testing donated equipment, which is then either reused in refurbished devices or recycled.
Advocate for women's reproductive rights
Aside from sharing your own story and calling legislators, there's no better way to help protect women's rights to healthcare services than giving money or time to organizations fighting for the cause. Planned Parenthood of Illinois needs help hitting the streets, phones, and mailboxes to raise awareness and funds, as well as escorts for patients at their clinics. And through Midwest Access Coalition, volunteers provide safe transportation, housing, and a non-judgmental ear for low-income women coming to Chicago for reproductive services.
Support sexual assault survivors
Through 24-hour crisis counseling, Rape Victim Advocates' volunteers ensure that victims of sexual violence who receive emergency treatment at partner hospitals are never alone. They also lend a hand by collecting clothing donations, running educational programs, and demonstrating in solidarity with the women, men, and children survivors at the annual Standing Silent Witness event in Daley Plaza.
Aid homeless women
Sarah's Circle provides temporary and permanent housing for homeless women with volunteers needed to cook meals, throw birthday and holiday parties, work the front desk, commit to working with veterans, and much more. They also accept donations of seasonal clothing, trial-sized toiletries, and money to support their goal of buying $75-100 of fresh produce every week.
Support the LGBTQ community
Chicago House's TransLife Center supports transgender individuals through housing, healthcare, legal services, and career mentorship. Their volunteer opportunities include leading discussion groups, gardening around the city, and even writing marketing content.
The Center on Halsted reaches the LGBTQ community by running special events, serving meals to at-risk youth and seniors, answering calls on the Anti-Violence or Behavioral Health Resource Lines, spreading awareness about HIV prevention and treatment, and providing legal services to those in need.
Show rescue animals some love
If you need a little pet therapy, PAWS Chicago and Chicago Canine Rescue provide it in spades. It might not be an option for you to foster a friendly furball, but even an hour of your time can help the rescue shelters and adoption centers fulfill their mission of finding these lovable dogs and cats a permanent, equally loving home. You can volunteer on a weekly basis to walk or bathe the animals, or help out at an adoption event. PAWS Chicago has locations throughout the city, making it easy to get involved at a spot convenient for you.
Help single moms by watching their kids
The Well of Mercy is a transitional-living program that relies on volunteers to help single, pregnant women in need. In addition to mentoring and fundraising opportunities, program is looking for female volunteers to be reliable, consistent "baby cuddlers" to provide on-site childcare while the moms participate in educational and career courses.
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