After the Volunteer Surge: How homeless organizations handle the drop in help after the holidays

Servicemembers from Camp Pendleton and local volunteers serve food at the Bread of Life Rescue Mission in Oceanside, Calif., Jan. 28. Nine Marines and one sailor, with the help of several community volunteers, prepared and served a free dinner for local homeless and others in need at the Mission.

U.S. Marine Corps Cpl. Timothy Childers

This past December, the phone message for So Others Might Eat greeted many willing volunteers with: “Hello! And happy holidays from So Others Might Eat…We are very fortunate to have enough volunteers throughout the holiday season. If you would like information on volunteering at another time…” 

And Martha’s Table also had to turn away volunteers during the holiday season, according to its volunteer coordinator Juliet Orzal. Though the organization serves about 2,000 meals a day, the 30 to 40 volunteers a day calling up during the weeks before Christmas were more than Martha’s Table could handle.  

“Trying to accommodate people’s schedules is time-consuming,” she said. “I tell them, ‘There is January. There is February.’” 

The situation at these two food and social-service providers are reflective of the dilemma that groups that work with the homeless in Washington and across the country face: How to balance the upsurge of volunteers during the holidays with the dearth of helping hands the rest of the year? 

Nicolette Fertakis, Bread for the City’s volunteer coordinator, said that in order to strike this balance, you have to get creative. She said that rather than turning away groups that want to volunteer in its kitchen suring the holidays, she offers them another option that will benefit Bread for the City during other times of the year. “If we are unable to accommodate a group of volunteers, we present them with alternative opportunities, such as hosting a food drive,” she said.  

During the off-season at Capital Area Food Bank, the staff of about 60 helps out a little more, and they increase their appeals for help, according to its volunteer coordinator Chris Leal. “We make do with what we have,” he said.., who explained that, outside of the holidays, about 50% of their volunteer needs are fulfilled.  

By contrast, the SHARE-DC Metro program, an affiliate of Catholic Charities, has about 90% of its volunteer needs met throughout the year. At SHARE-DC, volunteers pay about half of the cost of a $35 food package and then volunteer two hours for each package they purchase. Ninochika Twitty, the head of SHARE in the Washington area, said that the group estimates that its volunteer numbers increase by 50% during the holiday season, but that the spirit of giving does quickly die off shorter after New Year’s. Proof of the sharp decline is in the number of its food packages: in any given November SHARE averages 36,000 while January warrants a mere 13,000.  

Consequently, during the non-holiday time, SHARE, like many other groups, relies on a core group of volunteers, many of whom are from churches, areas schools and senior citizen groups, according to Twitty. And SHARE and other groups are now counting on students more than ever during the volunteer off-season, thanks to the District’s new 36 volunteer-hours graduation requirement.  

Twitty said that she especially like this requirement because people who volunteer when they are young are likely to continue to do so when they are older. “We believe that the earlier you start them, the better the community will be,” she said. 

Service providers also point that there are other volunteer surges that – though they are not nearly as great as the holiday surges – they look forward to. Other peak times for volunteering are at the beginning of the school year and spring break, when many universities sponsor service programs for students. In contrast, during the summer time, when many district residents are on vacation, volunteer flow wanes slightly.  

Though Kristin Lane, Central Union Mission’s director of communications and outreach, said that rather than putting the responsibility on service providers to figure out creative ways to get through these volunteer droughts, she would like holiday-time volunteers to take the responsibility of choosing another month in which to give back and help the homeless. 

“We are thankful for each volunteer who gives of their time, but sometimes the numbers of people who make volunteer during the holidays makes it challenging to provide the best possible volunteer experience,” she said. “It would be more beneficial to the Mission and, likely, more rewarding for the volunteer if they came at other times during the year.”  

Issues |Hunger|Shelters

Region |Washington DC

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