There's a pretty good chance you volunteered over the holidays. Maybe you collected or donated presents for low-income kids. Maybe you visited shut-ins, running errands and delivering medications. Or, maybe you helped serve meals at a soup kitchen or dining hall. Whatever it was, you'd be one of thousands of people for whom the holiday spirit means giving back in any way they can.
At GLIDE in the Tenderloin, 155 volunteers gathered on Christmas Eve to hand out over 3,000 prime rib meals. In fact, said co-Executive Director Kristen Yamamoto, volunteering at GLIDE is so popular during the holidays that once they open the volunteer schedule on Nov. 1 all the high-demand events (such as Thanksgiving) are typically filled by Nov. 5.
That influx of volunteers can be great for nonprofit organizations, food banks, and dining halls, but it's a double-edged sword.
"It becomes, in some ways, a strain on our system," said Christine Paquette, the executive director of St. Vincent de Paul Society of Marin. Not that they don't appreciate the help, she said.
With so many people wanting to get in the giving spirit, it can literally overwhelm volunteer coordinators -- some of whom are volunteers themselves -- and, sometimes, there's simply not enough spots for all the helping hands.
"I was inundated with so many requests, I can't even place them all," said Eleanor Bonner, the volunteer manager for Loaves & Fishes of Contra Costa. Some of them have to be encouraged to come volunteer later -- in January.
"Then, Jan. 1 rolls around and we still have a lot of work to do," said Paquette.
After the holidays wrap up and the new year is rung in, the volunteer hordes disappear. But, the organizations keep serving up food.
"We serve three meals a day, 364 days a year," said Yamamoto.
GLIDE requires 80 volunteers a day to serve meals. Loaves & Fishes uses about 140 volunteers each week. Last year, St. Vincent had 2,200 volunteers working in its rotating winter shelters (which are just about to start again).
That need has left some places struggling. "We're scrambling now," said Bonner. This week, to fill three of the five dining room locations and the central kitchen at Loaves & Fishes, she's been calling people that used to volunteer, doing outreach, and trying to find anyone to help serve lunch each day.
Sometimes, "as operations manager, we just have to put on our aprons," said Edita Cruz, executive director of Martha's Kitchen in San Jose. Martha's Kitchen hasn't experienced a big drop-off in the number of volunteers, primarily, she thinks, because they operate a drop-in volunteer policy with big groups regularly coming in. But, many organizations could use a little holiday giving spirit during the bleak January and February months.
The other problem is that some food banks are struggling to recover from a less than stellar holiday donation period. Most organizations get the majority of donations during the holiday months, in part because many people and companies choose to take advantage of year-end tax breaks on charitable contributions. But, this year, food banks around the Bay Area saw fewer donations than they expect and need during that time. The cold affected the available crops and the recovering economy made many would-be donors think that the situation was not too dire.
But, in fact, there are as many people hungry and in need of food as ever. That has been particularly true, of late, with cuts in food stamps. And, with federal assistance checks typically going out at the beginning of the month, many dining halls and food banks see increasing need as that money gets used up.
"Our lines get longer every day of the month," said Yamamoto.
Below are a handful of dining halls and nonprofit organizations that (among other programs) work to feed the poor. They are all in need of volunteers throughout the year and particularly right now.
"We always have room for more volunteers," said Paquette.