This Year's Top Picks

Giving to friends and family is wonderful. But if you’d like to extend your good tidings to the less fortunate as well, here are some ways to get started.


Henry Street Settlement
This Lower East Side group has been doing good works for more than a century. Serving a largely Asian and Hispanic community, its services include a mental-health clinic, a shelter for battered women, an arts center, and day-care centers. Volunteer as a tutor, a computer programmer, a job coach, or a teacher’s assistant. A contribution of $1,000 sends a child to summer camp.

Food Bank For New York City
This food-distribution program helps feed more than 1.5 million people per year citywide. Pitch in at the group’s Hunts Point warehouse preparing nonperishables collected from food drives for distribution, or volunteer at a local soup kitchen (call for a location near you). Through January, shop at A&P, Pathmark, Shop Rite, and Whole Foods, and $5 added to your grocery bill will provide a family of four with dinners for a week or more.

Robin Hood Foundation
This organization funds more than 100 programs to prevent poverty and aid the poor, from food banks to HIV/aids organizations to youth groups. The group’s board (Harvey Weinstein and Gwyneth Paltrow are members) covers operating expenses, so all funds donated go straight to those in need.

Student Sponsor Partners
SSP selects students from low-income families and transfers them from high schools with low graduation rates to schools with high ones (nineteen of the twenty participating institutions are Catholic). Sponsors pay an average of $2,200 toward the typical yearly tuition of $4,200 per child and spend time with the students four to six times a year. So-called Time Sponsors can donate $250 and meet with a child regularly. SSP alums have gone on to study at schools like Cornell, Boston College, and Duke.

Bide-A-Wee Home Association
With a donation of $30 or more to this 100-year-old animal-advocacy group, you can relocate a puppy or a kitten from an animal-control center to a “safe” shelter. If you have a friendly dog or cat, take him to cheer up a client at one of the 50 facilities participating in the “pet therapy” program, including Lenox Hill and St. Vincent’s hospitals, Cabrini and Florence Nightingale Nursing Homes, and the Rivington House AIDS Residence.

A donation to this food-delivery program helps pay for the more than 2.2 million nutritious meals the group provides each year to low-income and homebound people. If you’d prefer to give time rather than money, help deliver food on the weekends or visit with a Citymeals client.

Learning Leaders
Join this educational group’s Core Program and conduct one-on-one or small-group in-school tutorials (a minimum of two hours a week during the academic year is required) for academically underperforming kids, grades kindergarten through 12, at one of 850 participating public schools. Or opt for the Art Works program—volunteers take third-graders to the Brooklyn Museum of Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art (a crash course in either museum or arts education for children takes four hours and you’ll have to commit to leading six one-hour tours).

Seeds of Peace
A contribution of $2,500 sends a teenager from an overseas trouble spot to the Seeds of Peace International Camp in Otisfield, Maine. In addition to soccer, swimming, and the like, the campers—Jews and Palestinians, Indians and Pakistanis—participate in conflict-resolution sessions to learn how to settle differences peacefully (kids from traditionally hostile groups even bunk in the same cabin). If $2,500 is beyond your budget, smaller donations are welcome.

New York Foundation for the Arts
Celebrated artists including director Julie Taymor, composer Eliott Goldenthal, and architect Ricardo Scofidio all have the NYFA to thank, at least in part, for their success. Founded in 1971, the group provides nascent New York artists in sixteen disciplines, from literature to the performing arts, with financial backing and publicity. Donations help provide services and fellowships to more than 150 New York artists.

The Hope Program
718-852-9307, extension 26
Since 1984, this intensive sixteen-week job-readiness program has been preparing adults living on public assistance to achieve self-sufficiency. More than half of the participants don’t have high-school diplomas, and a majority are thirtysomething single moms studying to pass the GED. Volunteers can conduct one-on-one tutorials (GED-related or not) for two hours a week for twelve weeks (the time and location are flexible), or lead one-time-only classes on anything from World Lit and PowerPoint to résumé writing and job interviewing.

The Breast Cancer Research Foundation
As a member of the board of Memorial Sloan-Kettering hospital and a creator of the pink-ribbon breast-cancer-awareness program, cosmetics executive Evelyn H. Lauder founded the Breast Cancer Research Foundation in 1993. A recent round of $14.5 million in grants will fund clinical and genetic research on breast cancer, including trials for new drug treatments and research projects in vaccine development. The group’s medical advisory board ensures that your donations go to worthy proposals.

All Stars Project, Inc.
Rapper and actor Mekhi Phifer (8 Mile) is an alum of this group, which introduces low-income kids to the performing arts by staging talent shows and other productions. Volunteers help recruit kids ages 5 to 25 from neighborhoods like Harlem, Coney Island, Bedford-Stuyvesant, and the South Bronx for auditions and help produce shows. A new performing-arts center opening this month on West 42nd Street—host to three theaters, a costume shop, a wood shop, and classroom and office space—was made possible in part by donations.

American Red Cross
877-RED-CROSS, extension 2067
In addition to providing major disaster relief (9/11, the ’03 blackout), the Red Cross also responds to an average of eight smaller local emergencies a day, from building collapses to fires. Donations go to the disaster-relief fund, which pays for food, clothing, shelter, and other necessities provided to victims. At the New York Chapter, volunteers teach disaster-response workshops and other health and safety classes. The group’s Language Bank also seeks volunteers to interpret during crises.

Donors Choose
This nonprofit education group allows teachers to post funding requests on their Website, asking for anything from a new library to a new playground to First Aid mannequins. Access the proposals and fund them, partially or in full. The school then buys the materials you paid for and sends you photos of how the project materialized and thank-you notes from the students.

The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research
Started by the actor in 2000, shortly after he announced he had Parkinson’s, the foundation has funded $30 million in research. One current focus is a $1 million program designed to find genetic links to the disease. Eighty-five percent of all monies donated go directly to research.

International Center
Teach English and American-culture classes at this language-learning center in Chelsea, where students are foreign-born newcomers to New York (a standard commitment is two hours a week for six months). Volunteers are needed for written and conversational instruction. Donations help fund scholarships for the neediest students.

SAGE- Senior Action in a Gay Environment
This organization is dedicated to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender senior citizens. Volunteers accompany seniors to medical appointments, shopping trips, and other daily outings and teach classes on everything from dramatic writing to low-impact aerobics or keep homebound seniors company.

Computers for Youth
On Saturdays, volunteers teach computer basics to students and parents from low-income, public middle schools (morning and afternoon sessions are available). Each student works on his or her own computer during instruction, then takes the donated computer home. Computer donations must be made in bulk (minimum 50).

Art Start
Featuring hip-hop, graphic-design, and fine-arts programs, Art Start targets low-income and homeless youth. Volunteers, many of whom are professional artists, lead classes in their area of expertise, from drumming to short-story writing. Earmark funds specifically for an anticipated 24-hour safe-haven arts center, and add your name to a donor list that includes Bruce Willis and Russell Simmons.

Last Year's Picks

Children's Aid Society
Prepare and serve Thanksgiving dinner at P.S. 8 and the Frederick Douglass Center to the organization's children and their families in the days before Thanksgiving. (917-286-1530 or

Neighborhood Coalition for Shelter
Cook dinner for the homeless on the Upper East Side. Food donations are needed—nonperishables can be brought in anytime, fresh food on Thanksgiving or the day before. (212-861-0704)

Lenox Hill Neighborhood House
The Park Avenue Armory women's shelter is looking for helpers to serve dinner and mingle with Thanksgiving diners between 11 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. (212-744-5022, ext. 1238.)

St. Luke's/Roosevelt Hospital Center
St. Luke's 212-523-2188
Roosevelt 212-523-7155
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 Medical Center
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 find or start a group 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.

Mentoring USA
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.

Literacy Partners
You love to read, so why not pass that love on to someone else? Compact yet comprehensive, training to become a literacy volunteer takes place over a 2-3 week period (roughly 18-20 hrs, 6 sessions) and prepares volunteers to tutor in all of their programs: Adult Basic Education, pre-GED, ESL. 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 Saturday 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."

City Harvest
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. (Must be at least 40 pounds of food.)

New York Cares
New York Cares is something of a volunteer clearinghouse: Its constantly updated Website 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 participating Janovic stores.