Of all the things you might consider giving this season, the most satisfying may well be your time. Lately, the city's been feeling a lot more like a small town than it did a few months ago, and if you'd like to keep it that way, connecting with other New Yorkers -- ones you don't already know, ones who need your help -- could be the thing that makes the holidays fulfilling. "It's just really wonderful to witness the positive effect you can have on people's lives," says James Quinlan, a customer-service manager at J&R Music World who has been volunteering at God's Love We Deliver for the past seven years. "For me, it's as simple as this," explains federal judge Shira Scheindlin, who mentors kids in a Lower East Side housing project: "Try it, you'll like it." What follows is a list of options for people with a range of interests and availability: everything from raking leaves in Central Park to tutoring adults who are learning to read. Think of it as a chance to get to know a few more of your neighbors.
Lower Eastside Girls Club
"No introverts!" says Lyn Pentecost, director of the Lower Eastside Girls Club, of the type of (women only!) volunteers she's looking for. There are boys' clubs all over the city, but until five years ago, there were no parallel programs for girls. Now 300 girls 8 to 18 participate in LESGC's various programs, and volunteers are needed to help with all of them, from organizing a holiday crafts fair (December 15) to accompanying girls on museum trips. You can be a book-club volunteer, which includes meeting one Saturday afternoon a month with ten girls (and nine volunteers) to discuss a book you've all read. Or help a girl out with her homework -- always an excellent opportunity to refresh your understanding of the Pythagorean theorem -- for an hour a week. The center is perfect for women who, says Pentecost, "are book lovers, are art lovers -- people who really just love New York City." And who doesn't fit that description?
St. Luke's 212-523-2188
The city's hospitals depend on volunteers to help make them warmer, happier places. St. Luke's volunteers can read, feed, or just talk to patients; they can lend their services for a few hours a week or even full-time. One of Roosevelt's most innovative programs is Towards Older Person Awareness, in which volunteers act as schmoozers (they even have buttons to the effect), keeping older patients company during long and lonely days. There are special events you can help with, too: free haircuts, beauty makeovers, and yoga classes for the patients. "When you're a volunteer, you're just there to be nice," says Sue Fenton, who founded topa, "and that does incredible things for your self-worth. I started this program after being hospitalized with depression, and to say it's changed my life would be an understatement."
Central Park Conservancy
Looking to get a little dirt under your nails? Head over to Central Park, where the Conservancy is always looking for help with projects like weeding, planting, pruning, mulching, and raking. There's still plenty to do during the cold weather, like painting and shoveling. If you prefer not to get dirty, you can work at a visitors' center and direct all of the confused-looking types with backpacks and crinkly maps, or take them under your wing as a tour guide. Gardeners and tour guides are asked for at least three hours a month. Hate being out in the cold? There are also volunteer positions available performing administrative tasks in the (snug, indoor) office.
Beth Israel Hospital
If you've got an artsy-craftsy side -- or a dog who's good with people -- head on over to Beth Israel. Those who have a way with yarn can join up with the Beth Israel Blanketeers, who knit and crochet blankets and hats for Beth Israel's at-risk infants and baby clothes for the in-house Teen Pregnancy Program. You can knit at home and mail your blankets in, or you can join a knitting circle and work along with other volunteers. Two hundred fifty items were distributed to families in 2000. For those volunteers with a canine, Beth Israel has a partnership with the Good Dog Foundation. After a six-week training program with your dog, you are (both) asked to donate an hour a week to visit with patients in the hospital together.
212-253-1194, ext 459
The kids in this program are 5 to 18 years old and come from all parts of the city. Mentors meet their students at a mentoring center (usually a school, foster-group home, or housing project). For older kids, mentoring tends to be about life skills: how to find a job or an apartment, write a résumé, apply to college. Younger kids usually just need someone to listen and play with. "It's very satisfying," says Scheindlin, who got a group of mentors together at her courthouse to volunteer at a nearby housing project. "When I come in, my kid doesn't say Judge, she says Shira! And it's great." Training is a two-hour session; mentors are then asked to make a commitment of about an hour and a half per week through the end of the academic year.
You love to read, so why not pass that love on to someone else? The training to become a literacy teacher is long in comparison with some of the city's other volunteer programs -- it's a nine-week course that meets twice a week for two hours. (The next training session will begin in January.) Once trained, volunteers meet with adult students twice a week for at least a year to teach reading, writing, or math. "You really meet incredibly interesting people," says Susan Seiverman, who has been teaching adult literacy for twenty years. "The students are the best part." The teaching method focuses on practical skills, including how to read job applications or letters from family members and insurance companies. "I love it when they realize there's a whole world of great books out there," says Seiverman, "and now they can read them."
God's Love We Deliver
You don't have to be a gourmet to cook for God's Love We Deliver -- you just need to have a lunch hour. GLWD brings two fresh meals to housebound hiv/aids patients every single day. Volunteers are asked to work a shift every week, either three hours in the kitchen (the cooking crews have been known to get pretty competitive with their recipes) or an hour or so delivering meals. Within Manhattan, GLWD vans drop off food at community hubs (churches, synagogues, community centers), and you can spend your lunchtime delivering to clients within walking distance of your office. "It's the most fulfilling experience I have ever had," says James Quinlan, who's been volunteering for seven years. "It's like a big family." There are around 1,800 volunteers involved, and they deliver to 1,200 clients a day. Obviously, Thanksgiving and Christmas are really important days for GLWD, and volunteers who have extra time during the season are needed to help with special gourmet holiday meals and donated gifts.
If you spend part of the holidays missing your grandparents, get yourself over to Citymeals-on-Wheels. The primary focus of Citymeals-on-Wheels is getting food to homebound, elderly New Yorkers, and they're looking for volunteers on weekend mornings for two hours a day. It's not strenuous stuff; all of the meal deliveries you will be asked to make will be within walking distance of each other. And there are other programs, too. There's Friendly Visiting, in which you spend an hour a week visiting with a senior, or you can spend a half-hour a week merely chatting on the phone. Or you can take them shopping -- some of the clients of Citymeals-on-Wheels like to get out and do their own grocery shopping and errands, but they need a little help. "It can be a bit stilted at first," says Leora Jontef, the volunteer coordinator, of striking up relationships with the seniors they help. "But if you give it time, you'll really build a relationship."
Here's a commitment that doesn't take any time at all, only leftovers. If you've overcooked for your holiday party, or if you hate to see all the waste left at your company's Christmas bash, contact City Harvest, and they'll arrange to pick up the food that's left and distribute it to New Yorkers who really need it.
New York Cares
New York Cares is something of a volunteer clearinghouse: Its constantly updated Website (www.nycares.org) lists volunteer opportunities everywhere from Lincoln Center to East Harlem, and activities ranging from ushering to tutoring. During the holiday season, it also includes the names of organizations that need help with special events, as well as overnight shelters that need extra support in the winter, with varied time commitments. And New York Cares has its own projects, too. It's holding its annual coat drive through December, for example, and you can drop off your donations at police precincts and Blockbuster stores.