How to volunteer over the holidays

December 03, 1998

I write a funny column about as often as politicians get an attack of humility, which is to say, not often. But this week I'd been tinkering with one I just couldn't finish when I got the phone call that led me to put it on the shelf.

She's been a widow since this past July, when she lost her husband of more than 50 years to a cancer that took him in less than six months. They had always been so active, she said, doing lots of things together. Now she wants to carry on with their shared tradition.

"You just feel like getting out among people," she said, but added, "For the average person who's at home, where do you start?"

The Christmas dinners run by the Union Rescue Mission and Nick Giannaris at the Hagerstown Four Points Hotel are so well-publicized there are plenty of volunteers, she said. Where can a person go who wants to do more than show up at an event?


Perhaps, she said, you could use your column to ask for suggestions as to where people like me could be of some help.

My first call was to the United Way office, which sent me to the Washington County Chapter of the Red Cross at 113 S. Prospect St., in Hagerstown. The agency runs a gift-wrapping service (for donations) each year at the Valley Mall. But though all shifts for 1998 are booked, officials said, there's always a need for volunteers at blood drive locations, not to mention blood donors.

Cindy Kline, the Red Cross director of emergency services, says her agency can always use help with its service to military families and with the programs it runs for veterans at the outpatient clinic at Western Maryland Center and at the Veterans Administration Center in Martinsburg, W.Va.

At the outpatient center, volunteers answer phones, help with paperwork and escort patients from one area to another, Kline said. In Martinsburg, there's more emphasis on providing some companionship to patients who might not have any family members nearby.

"We offer coffee hours, which is like a small social hour on a Sunday where they get coffee and a little treat. And then once a month, we celebrate birthdays," Kline said.

When I note that it's easier to get people to volunteer for children's charities, Kline agrees, but notes, "These old-timers smile just the same as the kids."

To volunteer with the Red Cross, call (301) 739-0717.

Sonny Shank, executive director of the Union Rescue Mission, 125 N. Prospect St., confirmed that the mission's Christmas dinner will be fully staffed with volunteers, but added there are other ways to help.

"She could volunteer in our kitchen, bake Christmas cookies for the men who stay here or write some Christmas cards for them," Shank said.

The mission also runs a soup line each day at 1 p.m., and another after the 7 p.m. evening church service, he said. If you can't help with those, Shank said, there's always a need for donated foodstuffs like coffee, canned goods and any kind of toiletries, like deodorant, shampoo and toilet paper.

To volunteer with the mission, call (301) 739-1165, Shank said.

At the Washington County unit of the Salvation Army, 534 W. Franklin St., in Hagerstown. Laura Barger, director of social services, told me that my potential volunteer's help would be greatly appreciated on Dec. 21 and Dec. 22, when volunteers put together packages of food and toys and pass them.

"We could really use volunteers on Dec. 22, which is Toy and Joy Day, to pass the food out, and then we'll be setting things up on the 21st," she said.

And Barger says the agency can always use help with its lunch feeding program, which needs kitchen help from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday, and with its youth programs, which run on Monday and Tuesday evenings.

To volunteer with the Salvation Army, call Barger at (301) 733-2440.

And finally, there's the R.E.A.C.H. cold-weather shelter, also know as the Religious Effort to Care for Homeless People, now being run at the former Cannon Shoe Factory, 148 W. Franklin St.

Trained volunteers recruited through Washington County churches staff two shifts each night from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. Those who can't work in the shelter can help by donating cash and clothing items like gloves, hats, socks and long underwear.

For those who prefer to work one-on-one, R.E.A.C.H. runs the Interfaith Volunteer Care-Giving program, which provides volunteers to do grocery shopping and other chores for the homebound elderly and handicapped.

Is there a problem in your life that you can't solve, a sadness that you can't seem to overcome? As I told a friend of mine recently, sometimes the only thing to do while waiting for help with the big problems is to work on the little ones.

In this case, the problem you can solve might be how to coax a smile from a lonely veteran or how to ease a needy person's hunger. Try it, and if I've missed some good causes that need some help, send information about them to Editorial Page Editor, The Herald-Mail. P.O. Box 439, Hagerstown, Md., 21741.

Bob Maginnis is editor of The Herald-Mail's Opinion page.

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