Tuesday, April 29, 2008

$5 Adventure: Volunteering

Frugality can be dangerous. If you don’t live somewhere with an easy casual social life, like a college dorm or a commune, it’s frightfully easy to let all that not eating out and not spending money on movie tickets turn you into a hermit. If you look carefully at last week’s post on Meetup.com, you’ll notice it’s tagged “$5 Adventures.” This is the second post with that tag. The $5 adventure posts will focus on cheap ways to get out of the house and shake up your routine for—wait for it—$5 or less. Mostly, these posts will focus on free things, but the $5 budget allows for gas, bus fare, or incidental purchases like snacks.

Today’s $5 adventure is volunteering. I’m not really talking about contributing to the community here, though I’m obviously very in favor of it. In this post, I’m going to assume that for the moment you’re more interested in doing something stimulating or fun than in making a difference in the world (that’s just a bonus).

My most recent experience with volunteering was at Open Books, a Chicago literacy organization. I'd been on their volunteer mailing list for a couple of months, but hadn't participated in anything yet. Then my college alumni group signed up to help out at their warehouse sorting books. Meeting people from my college + worthy cause + books = perfect!

The warehouse was in a part of town I'm not familiar with--it's always fun to see a new neighborhood. The book sorting room took up an entire floor--maybe the size of a football field--filled with thousands of boxes of books.

I spent the first hour or so making boxes with an eight-year-old girl who'd come with her whole family. Then I spent some time talking and sorting with my freshman roommate's best friend and catching up on the news from people we both knew in college. Finally I spent a lot of time opening up new boxes (felt like Christmas!) and sorting them into broad categories. I found it quite satisfying to find an obscure title and know it belonged in young adult fiction or women's studies. There were also some interesting things in those boxes--books in Japanese (history books as far as we could tell), a beautiful but very obsolete atlas.

There are several good ways to find out about casual volunteer opportunities like this one. First, if you know of any organizations in your area where you might like to volunteer, get on their e-mail lists. I'm also on lists for Working Bikes, Planned Parenthood, and a group that hooks up at-risk kids with writing mentors.

One Brick focuses on short-term or one-shot volunteer opportunities and organizes events in Chicago, New York, San Francisco, Washington, and Minneapolis/St. Paul, with more cities coming soon. Here's May's Chicago schedule--lots of good stuff here.

Volunteer Match is more about long-term volunteering, but lists opportunities nationwide and allows you to search by interest area and keyword.

Craigslist's calls for volunteers can be good for finding more obscure organizations and causes that fit well with your interests and skills. (If you haven't checked out craigslist lately, they've started boards for every state and many smaller cities and towns.)

Local publications often run calls for volunteers on a weekly or monthly basis. I've mostly seen these in free weeklies, like the Chicago Reader or the Austin Chronicle, but that may only be because I rarely pick up a standard newspaper!

My Open Books experience was not only free, but came with a few perks, too--snacks and bottled water, a free t-shirt from my alumni group, and repeated assurances from the Open Books guy that we could take home with us books that looked interesting (I did cave and bring one book home, a book I've been wanting to read that I know isn't available at the Chicago Public Library or at Paperbackswap).

1 comment:

julie said...

Another great post. An ex of mine introduced me to volunteering for film festivals. In exchange for 6 hours or so of taking tickets, ushering people, you got a pass to all of the films. Last year he saw several dozen films at the Vancouver International Film Festival. He was as happy as a clam :)

Looking forward to future $5 posts :)