Tag Archives: holiday volunteering

Ideas for Giving Gifts that Give Back

I don’t know about you, but I still need to figure out what I am doing for Christmas gifts!  For many years, Jay and I have looked for ways to buy or make gifts in a thoughtful way that keeps on giving.  Here are some ideas for how you can give gifts that give back.  These are only a few examples; I would love to know your suggestions in the comments.

Already know that your dad wants golf clubs or your sister would love a new top?  One of the best ways to support your local community is by shopping at a local trusted retailer who supports your community and provides decent jobs.

Give of your time in honor of a friend – Why not volunteer and take pictures or write about the experience to share it with your loved one as their gift.  Or maybe you have a family member that could use your talents or assistance and you can give a coupon good for your time.

To find volunteer opportunities, search these sites:

Tewksbury/Blooms at Ronald McDonald House

Mom, sister (Nora), and Sharon at Ronald McDonald House last Christmas

Shop online like normal, but have a portion of the proceeds go to a nonprofit:

The sites below (and others like them) have set up agreements with retailers that when you use their site a portion of your purchase will go towards a nonprofit.

Let your recipient have some say in a donation:

  • Donors Choose Gift Cards – with these cards the recipient gets to a pick a project at a school to donate the gift card to.
  • Kiva Cards – with a Kiva card the recipient can choose which entrepreneur to invest in

Make a donation to your friend or family member’s favorite charity.

  • If you want to look up a nonprofit in your family member’s neighborhood or find out the stats on how a nonprofit spends their donations, check out GuideStar or Charity Navigator.

Make a donation to a charity in your friend’s name:

  • Heifer International – Heifer is always a fun one because you can buy an animal in the name of your friend that will go to a family in an impoverished country.
sharon with America the Beautiful Federal Lands Pass

One of our best Christmas gifts last year, an America the Beautiful Federal Lands Recreation Pass!

Halloween Magic at Wabi Sabi Thrift Store

Most of the time we were in Moab last week it was raining and extremely windy.  Jay was willing to brave the elements to mountain bike, but I decided to check out what indoor opportunities were available.  I discovered Wabi Sabi Thrift Store.  As most of you know, I am a serious thrift store shopper.  I recently bought my wedding dress at a thrift store in Fairfax, Virginia and found great deals on ExOfficio outdoor wear in a Phoenix thrift store near Jay’s parents house.  Well, Wabi Sabi was my favorite type of thrift store: 1) it benefits multiple local nonprofits, 2) they have sales (it was 50% EVERYTHING the day I shopped), 3) the employees seem to enjoy working there, 4) everything is neatly organized and labeled but they do not price different items of the same type differently.

halloween costumes at the thrift store

Halloween Costumes that I tagged

So after spending 1.5 hours and 10 dollars at Wabi Sabi, I thought to ask if they used drop-in volunteers.  It turned out that they were getting the Halloween room ready and could use help in the next few days.  I signed up for a 2 hour shift and was excited to learn more about this organization.

price gun

My tools

When I showed up I was given volunteer guidelines to review and then immediately put to work.  Excellent.  I got in touch with my past retail experience, realizing it had been over 10 years since I had worked a price gun, but really it’s just like riding a bike.  =)  It was my job to price the halloween costumes that had already been sorted into boxes.  I got to work across from the store’s manager.  The other two volunteers that afternoon were two high school aged girls who were seriously enjoying sorting through the halloween garb and putting them up for sale.  This was a coveted role, because in the process you could keep an eye out for the best costume to set aside for yourself.  Even better, you earn store credit by volunteering ($7 per hour), so all of us could get a costume.  I didn’t find anything that spoke to me, but this “big bad wolf” number was pretty fun (see picture below).

sharon in big bad wolf costume

checking out the Big Bad Wolf costume

I really enjoyed my shift and will make time to shop at Wabi Sabi anytime I’m in Moab.  The proceeds benefit 12 different local nonprofit partners and shoppers can vote on which nonprofit they would like to benefit from their purchases.

Christmas Spirit: Being Grateful and Giving To Others

Tewksbury/Blooms at Ronald McDonald House

Mom, sister (Nora), and Sharon at Ronald McDonald House

This Christmas I was reminded at how blessed Jay and I are and how grateful we are to be so blessed.  We are finishing up on a great year of accomplishments and good fortune.  Yesterday, Christmas Eve, my mom invited my sister Nora and I to join her at the Ronald McDonald House.  She volunteers there every Friday.  Nora and I met my mom there, working our way through the daily chores list unloading the dishwasher, cleaning, and straightening.  We also had time to chat over coffee since the house was pretty empty for the holiday weekend.

Ronald McDonald Houses are located near hospitals all over the world and provide a place for families to stay when they have a child undergoing treatment for a serious illness.  My sister, who was diagnosed with cancer at her 6 month check up, stayed in the Ronald McDonald House in Baltimore as a toddler when she was getting a bone marrow transplant (from me) at Johns Hopkins.  Our family was very grateful for this home away from home at such a stressful time.

The Ronald McDonald House in Falls Church  is connected with Fairfax Hospital which has a well renowned NICU and therefore a lot of the families who stay at the house are there because they have newborns who were born prematurely or who have life-threatening illnesses.  Today, in the wee hours of the morning, my cousin gave birth to a beautiful healthy baby boy.  We are so grateful.  So blessed.

Merry Christmas.  Happy Holidays.


Volunteering with Community Volunteer Network at Help the Homeless Holiday Gala

Last Thursday night, Jay and I volunteered together for the first time in a long time.  We signed up through Community Volunteer Network to volunteer for the 5th Annual Help the Homeless Holiday Gala hosted by Arlington’s Street People’s Assistance Network (A-SPAN).


Help the Homeless Holiday Gala

Photo by Joshua Stockstill, click on the photo to read an article from Patch and see more photos from the event

NOTE: More Great PHOTOS from Clifford on Flickr.


I had come to learn about A-SPAN’s work through their Director of Development, Jan Sacharko, who is very active on social media and has really amplified the voice of A-SPAN in the short time he has worked there.  Although Arlington is well known for its high median incomes and low unemployment rate (around 4% even during this Great Recession), affordable housing and homelessness are still issues that face many Arlingtonians.  Many families are one pink slip or health crisis away from losing everything they have.  A strong safety net is vital so that children’s lives are not uprooted and so that men do not freeze to death on the streets in our community.  These are real consequences  of a broken support structure that I became aware of in the last community we lived in.  Arlington manages to keep the safety net intact with a lot of dedication from individuals like those present at Thursday night’s gala.

Interested in giving to A-SPAN?

Donate Now

Interested in volunteering with A-SPAN?


Our Volunteer Experience

Community Volunteer Network

As a volunteer experience, Thursday night was primarily positive (and would have been overwhelmingly positive if we had been able to arrive sooner and enjoy the event more).  CVN offers a great way for young people like Jay and I to volunteer on a flexible schedule with people that we know.  They have an ongoing calendar of volunteer events as well as happy hours where you can meet other volunteers.  Through my position at Volunteer Arlington I have worked closely with CVN for 2.5 years so we knew most of the CVN volunteers working Thursday night.

The event was split into two shifts, which is absolutely crucial for special events.  First, big events take a lot of energy and therefore a 2 or 2.5 hour shift is long enough (especially since all of the volunteers were coming straight from a full day of work).  Also, one of the main attractors to volunteering for a special event is getting to take part in it for free.  The shifts allowed us to participate before or after our volunteering was complete.  This is great for the organization as well, since none of us would have been able to afford the $100 ticket, but now that we know what the event is about we could spread the word next year or maybe attend in the future when we earn more money.

Jay at A-SPAN Gala

Jay working the front entrance at the A-SPAN Holiday Gala

Jay and I were stationed at the front entrance.  We welcomed guests, answered questions, and opened doors.  This role suits me well since I enjoy direct customer service.  Jay said he felt out of his element at a “gala”, but he was excellent at the job and seemed to enjoy himself.


For next year, or for similar gala events I would recommend:

Offer a service club the opportunity to coordinate the coat check in exchange for keeping any tips they make.  Two volunteers handled the coat check and turned away tips all night.  They did not feel comfortable taking any money, but the guests did not mind paying and that would have been a great way to raise more money for the cause or for another community group.

The bulk of the money raised came from auctions (silent and live).  There is a lot of interesting social science behind raising the most money from an auction which is worth researching.  For example, in a live auction, should you have the auction items get steadily more valuable?  How many auction items are ideal for netting the greatest amount of money and good will from your donors?  What is the effect on giving when large donors are publicly recognized in front of their peers at the event?  Are there methods for real time feedback to the participants about who is bidding, how much, and why they give?  In addition to the giving itself, how can the payment process be streamlined so that donors have a positive experience throughout the event?

CVN has actually volunteered at several fundraisers that featured auctions this year.  We have discussed how CVN volunteers could serve as volunteer consultants to the nonprofits based on our first-hand knowledge of auctions and what we have observed to work best.