Thanksgiving

Here's How to Volunteer in Chicago This Holiday Season

'Tis the season for giving back.

2020 has been one of most challenging years in recent memory, but there’s never been a better time to support the businesses and organizations that keep our Chicago communities strong. This year, we're focused on supplying you with plenty of meaningful ways to give back to fellow Chicagoans through engaging virtual and socially distanced volunteer opportunities—organized by interests—so you can make a positive impact while staying safe and healthy until we can all be together again.

This list will get you started, but you can also check out Chicago Cares, One Good Deed Chicago, HandsOn Suburban Chicago, and national networks like VolunteerMatch and Corona Connects, a new directory that matches volunteers with pandemic-related opportunities.

For those still looking for a cause they want to support

Volunteering Untapped Chicago partners with a different nonprofit each month, so volunteers can help various local organizations throughout the year and get a feel for what causes might be most important to them. Opportunities are socially distanced and virtual these days. Volunteers clean up local parks, write letters to encourage Americans to vote, create handmade cards for kids, and record holiday carols for seniors from home, then kick back with the group afterwards for happy hour and games virtually. 

United Way Chicago strengthens Chicago communities through a range of volunteer initiatives, including virtual projects. Volunteers can sew face masks for high-risk folks, help job seekers prep for interviews, assemble care packages, and more all from their own homes. 

 

For people who want to help in the healthcare field

For those interested in supporting healthcare professionals in a more hands-on way, Chicago Mask Makers is collecting and donating handmade face masks to organizations in the Chicagoland area during COVID-19. Hospice care and counseling services provider JourneyCare is looking for volunteers who can knit comfort items like blankets for patients and make check-in phone calls to access the needs of patients and families.

Heartland Alliance, an anti-poverty organization focused on ending poverty through healthcare, housing, jobs, and justice, is looking for volunteers who can host food drives to help low-income Chicagoans with HIV stay healthy during COVID-19, send handmade greeting cards to isolated seniors, or get their hands dirty working at the urban farm in Englewood.

With walk-in clinics all around Chicago—including a variety of spots to get free testing for COVID-19 without insurance—Howard Brown Health makes quality, affordable healthcare services accessible to those who are uninsured or under-insured, and offers non-judgmental, specialized care for queer and trans folks. Volunteers can assemble safer sex kits to be distributed at clinics and in the community, get involved in fundraising events, and more.

 

For education and literacy advocates

This city is filled with reading- and language-focused charities. Anyone passionate about reading and writing can look to organizations like 826CHI and Open Books—there are multiple ways for volunteers to get involved, from something as simple as donating or packing books to leading youth reading and writing workshops. Volunteer tutors at Literacy Chicago help teach students learning English as a second language or help native speaking adults with reading and comprehension, and even digital literacy. Chicago Books to Women in Prison connects incarcerated folks with books and uses reading as a tool for rehabilitation that can help break the prison cycle. Neighbor to Neighbor (N2N) Literacy Project volunteers assemble, paint, and install little free libraries in various Chicago neighborhoods to expand access to free books for children, teens, and adults.

 

For people passionate about mental health services

Shatter the stigma around mental health illnesses and give hope to those struggling with mental illness as a volunteer at Mental Health Association of Greater Chicago. Volunteers provide vital educational and resource support, and virtual opportunities include office support, graphic design, event planning, grant writing, fundraising phone-a-thons, and curriculum and program support. Volunteers can also support Hope For The Day, a local organization dedicated to raising awareness about proactive suicide prevention in Chicago communities.

For creative types

The volunteer-run nonprofit Creative Chicago Reuse Exchange redistributes donated surplus supplies, materials, and equipment to Chicago teachers and nonprofits in the form of art kits. Volunteers can also help with social media, blogging, grant writing, graphic design, donor solicitation, special events, workshops, material pick-ups, and more. 

Cardz for Kidz delivers cards and bookmarks crafted by volunteers to seniors and children with pre-existing conditions. Volunteers are also needed to help sort cards. The organization is collecting and shipping thousands of cards each week, and being extra cautious with cards received and delivered by mail at this time.

Volunteers at the Chicago Urban Art Retreat Center, a safe retreat center dedicated to social justice issues, engage with the community through the arts by painting murals, giving the women's residence rooms makeovers, entertaining at events, gardening, and more. Volunteers can also help clean and update the women's residence, pick up litter, and assist with grant writing and donation soliciting virtually. 

 

For resume pros who want to help job seekers secure employment

Through Care for Real's Employment Resource Center, volunteers help clients with their resumes and cover letters, search for job opportunities, submit online job applications, and conduct mock interviews. The organization also offers one of the few free clothing services in the city, giving job seekers and others access to Clothes Closet donations. Volunteers can also pitch in with food distribution for neighbors experiencing job loss or other economic challenges.

Help someone in need secure a job through Cara Chicago. They're currently at a limited volunteer capacity due to the impact of COVID-19, but continue to support participants in their job search through virtual coaching services.

 

For people who want to end homelessness and poverty

La Casa Norte serves youth and families confronting homelessness through housing resources and opportunities. Volunteers can help people work towards long-term stability by assisting with apartment rental searches, employment searches, and mock interviews, and as a personal shopper in their food pantry. The Night Ministry and Sarah's Circle are also great organizations that provide outreach services and housing for homeless adults and teens. 

Volunteers can help organizations like Digs with Dignity and Humble Design Chicago sort and organize donations in the warehouses, refurbish older furniture, and select and box furniture and home goods for individuals and families exiting homelessness and, in turn, keep otherwise good items out of landfills.

 

For fair and affordable housing advocates

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 Organization hotline is so good at giving tenants advice that over half of the volunteers answering the phone are former callers. Help empower tenants to exercise their right to affordable and safe housing as a hotline volunteer. 

For a more hands-on approach to housing, Chicagoland Habitat for Humanity is building a better Chicago, literally. Volunteers can attend a virtual orientation—and learn about the extra on-site precautions in place due to COVID-19—before working at build sites or in Habitat ReStores, where used home goods, appliances, and furniture are sold to help give back to the community. 

 

For people who want to help families secure essentials for their children

There are many ways to make life better for local families in need. Set kids up for success early on by putting together clothing packs for children in need across Chicago at Share Our Spare, where warehouse volunteers can also help sort and inventory donations of baby and toddler essentials like diapers, wipes, formula, hygiene products, and winter clothing.

For folks interested in mentorship

Becoming a “Big” is kind of a huge deal. Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Chicago matches volunteers with underprivileged youth in the city who need mentorship the most. Littles bond with their Bigs through one-on-one and group activities. Every step in the process to become a Big is now virtual, so you'll be prepared to connect with your Little.

Do you work in a science, technology, engineering, or mathematics profession? Volunteer to be a positive influence on young people in Chicago through Project Exploration, which focuses on students of color and girls. Get kids fired up about STEM topics through illuminating virtual programs or connect at socially distanced STEMBus events, and expose them to exciting education and career paths.

Provide guidance for low-income community college students through One Million Degrees. Volunteer coaches help guide low-income community college students in their academic, professional, and personal pursuits. These connections—even virtual ones—are critical, especially during this challenging time for students.

 

For folks who want to fight hunger in Chicago

There are a staggering number of folks in our community who are facing food insecurity, and the COVID-19 pandemic has drastically increased the needs of our neighbors. Community food pantries and organizations like the Greater Chicago Food Depository, Lakeview Pantry, and Fight2Feed need volunteers to sort, repack, and distribute fresh and non-perishable food for families and individuals, many of whom are children, seniors, and veterans. 

Urban Growers Collective volunteers have the opportunity to dig their hands in the soil, learn what it takes to grow food, and give back to their community. Depending on the season, they prepare beds, shift compost, plant, harvest, or clean up the land—rain or shine.

Volunteers at The Love Fridge Chicago, a network of community-run, free food fridges across the city, can take on a variety of responsibilities like managing a fridge, distributing food, and even communications and outreach work.

 

For animal lovers

We're probably all in need of a little pet therapy right now, and there are plenty of great organizations for animal lovers like One Tail At A Time Dog Rescue, Chicago Canine Rescue, PAWS Chicago, and Chicago Pet Rescue. While it might not be an option for you to foster a friendly furball, even an hour of your time creating pet profiles, posting on social media, and walking or bathing our furry friends can help the rescue shelters and adoption centers fulfill their mission of finding these lovable dogs and cats a permanent, loving home.

Friendship Pet Food Pantry helps keep people and their pets together by distributing pet food and other items like cat litter, leashes, and toys to the doors of Chicago families. Volunteers can help with pet food pickup and delivery and identify underserved populations in need of pet food pantry resources.

 

For people passionate about helping older adults and people with disabilities

Make a meaningful impact on Chicago seniors with your friendship and time through organizations like Little Brothers Friends of the Elderly Chicago Chapter and H.O.M.E. Volunteer orientations are online now, and they'll match you with an older adult to connect with over the phone or by mail. You could be providing companionship to someone who might really need it.

Through Meals on Wheels Chicago's Love Notes Program, volunteers can write notes to homebound seniors and people with disabilities, which are distributed with nutritious meals. 
KEEN Chicago uses exercise to instill confidence in kids with disabilities. Volunteers are now meeting virtually, and 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. Volunteer coaches can plan and facilitate session activities with athletes, and groups will even meet in small breakout groups once a month to encourage interaction. 

For those who want to support the LGBTQIA+ community 

While many of the organizations and charities on this list weave LGBTQIA+ into their missions, some others deserve special shout out. Brave Space Alliance—the first Black- and trans-led LGBTQIA+ center located on the South Side of Chicago—focuses on food insecurity, housing insecurity, and economic justice for Black and Brown queer and trans people. Volunteers can help with the crisis food pantry for queer, trans, non-binary, and gender-nonconforming people in Chicago. Chicago House supports people in the community, particularly those who are HIV/AIDS positive, through housing, health, and employment programs (Howard Brown Health has even teamed up with them to provide employment assistance). Volunteers of The Center on Halsted, a huge community resource center for the LGBTQIA+ community, answer calls on the Anti-Violence or Behavioral Health Resource Lines, provide legal services to those in need, spread awareness about HIV prevention and treatment, and more.

 

For people who want to welcome immigrant families

Welcome newly arriving families and help them build a life in Chicago through RefugeeOne. The organization assists refugees with citizenship, finding homes, learning English, gaining job skills, and much more. New volunteer mentors and tutors are trained and matched virtually, and are encouraged to continue meeting virtually until it is safe to meet in person again due to COVID-19. 

Chicago- and Austin-based GirlForward matches women mentors with adolescent refugee girls for weekly mentoring and tutoring. Women who identify as immigrants, refugees, and/or women of color are strongly encouraged to apply. 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.

For people who want to support indigenous communities

The Chicago area is located on the ancestral lands of various indigenous tribes. Informed public education and awareness building is critical to the implementation of indigenous rights, and that is everyone's responsibility. We can learn how to best support the many nations through local organizations like the Chi-Nations Youth Council, UNITY Midwest, American Indian Center, and Chicago American Indian Community Collaborative—each doing their unique part to foster cultural awareness, and strengthen the community through activism and volunteerism, and education.

For those who want to help victims of abuse

Through 24-hour crisis counseling, Resilience helps rape and sexual assault survivors by making sure those seeking emergency medical treatment at partner hospitals are never alone. The organization has temporarily suspended in-person hospital response due to COVID-19, but will continue to advocate by phone until further notice. Sarah’s Inn volunteers advocate for domestic violence survivors through community outreach and education, and answer calls for the 24-hour crisis line service. Apna Ghar supports victims of abuse in immigrant communities in Chicago, focusing on survivors who might otherwise face cultural or language barriers when seeking help. Volunteers can undergo online training to work directly with survivors, or other special projects without training.

For women's reproductive rights advocates

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 our time to organizations fighting for the cause. Midwest Access Coalition volunteers provide safe transportation, housing, and a non-judgmental ear for low-income women coming to Chicago for reproductive services. Non-client facing roles include fundraising, communications, and client and tech support.

For those who want to secure justice for fellow Chicagoans

Ascend Justice provides free legal assistance to survivors of gender-based violence and families impacted by the child welfare system. Volunteers can help provide brief legal services to survivors of gender-based violence over the phone via the Emergency Order of Protection Remote Hotline hotline. No ongoing case commitment is required and a staff attorney will be available for support.

Many of Legal Aid Chicago's volunteer opportunities have been adapted to allow remote work. Practicing attorneys, law students, and even those who didn’t go to law school can help people living in poverty get free civil legal services like eviction mediation, criminal records relief, and consumer bankruptcy assistance, and a fair shot in our city’s legal system. Chicago Volunteer Legal Services and the Greater Chicago Legal Clinic are always looking for volunteer attorneys to help with their pro bono work as well.

For environmentalists

There are many ways to help protect the environment, but supporting local parks and organizations working to preserve nature is a great start. In the city, volunteer to pitch in at your local public park, Chicago Botanic Garden, an urban farm like Plant Chicago, or even a farmers market like Green City Market. You can fight back against climate change through the youth movement Sunrise Movement Chicago or the Chicago Conservation Corps sustainability focused program through the Peggy Notebaert Museum

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Nicole Bruce is a Chicago-based writer covering travel, food, entertainment, technology, and more. Tell her what you're doing to make a difference in Chicago on Twitter @nicoleabruce.