Where to volunteer for the holiday season this year

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The Big Brooklyn Toy Drive is just one way you can make a kid as happy as this one this Christmas season. Photo by Kathryn Suellentrop, via Facebook

It’s easy to get sucked into a holiday spending bubble, especially when bombarded with shiny knick-knacks and long gift lists. But before we drink gallons of spiked seasonal beverages, make questionable decisions at the company holiday party and buy expensive electronics delivered to us via drones, let’s reflect on our blessings and do some unselfish things this season.

You can commit small acts of kindness to help the New Yorkers who are living on less than what you have. From donating coats, toys and food, to spending time with animals and humans who can really use the attention, here are a few ways you can give back.

New York Cares
New York Cares runs volunteer programs with 1,300 non-profits and public schools. This month, you can sign up for projects like throwing Red Hook Recreation Center’s kids holiday party (December 13) or serving a festive dinner to people with HIV/AIDs at the Hegeman in Brownsville (December 19). New York Cares also runs two major initiatives every winter: 

Coat Drive
You see those subway ads with the Statue of Liberty huddled up in the snow every day. Now in its 25th year, the New York Cares Coat Drive is going on now through February 7. There are 280 drop-off locations, so use their coat drive map to find the one nearest you. You can also start your own collection team.

Winter Wishes
The lesser-known New York Cares holiday program is Winter Wishes. You basically get to be Santa Claus without the scratchy beard and high cholesterol. How it works: They partner with charities to collect thousands of letters from disadvantaged children and families, requesting things they want for Christmas. I’ve done this once before and despite the endless search for the perfect Transformer in Kmart, it was really easy. Sign up and choose to receive as many of these wish letters as you want. 

Brooklyn Eats Cares
The Chamber of Commerce is working with six food banks for the Brooklyn Eats Cares food drive, and you have until Friday, December 20 to donate non-perishable eats to needy families. We see those empty Whole Foods bags in your kitchen, so I know you have something better than Vienna sausages and roast beef flavored Ramen packs. Don’t hoard it; give them the good stuff. Check out our post from last week for a list of drop-off locations throughout Brooklyn.

Brooklyn Toy Drives
Canned corned beef is nice, but you might find that donating toys is more fun. You have until December 15 to drop off unwrapped toys for the Big Brooklyn Toy Drive at one of their locations in DUMBO, Williamsburg or Greenpoint. You can also bring a toy priced at $20 or more, in place of the $25 cover, to their 2nd annual party on December 17, which includes things like an open bar, bar snacks and a raffle.

Remember in Home Alone 2 where the bad guys tried to steal from those sick children in the hospital, and Macaulay Culkin fended them off? I’m sorry that in real life you can’t stop burglars with one-liners and swinging paint cans—but you can be a badass by donating to the Brooklyn Hospital Center. They’re asking for items to help the thousands of kids who visit the hospital each year. Donate toys, band-aids, personal care items and pajamas online or via phone.

KEEN provides free recreational activities for children with developmental and physical disabilities, for those of you who prefer to donate your time over toys and food. As a volunteer, you get one-on-one interaction with KEEN kids as you play basketball, kick soccer balls back and forth and enjoy some old school favorites like Duck Duck Goose and the Macarena. If you’re not the physical type, KEEN also has Arts & Crafts events on select Saturdays. Color outside the lines, make jewelry and craft that elaborate holiday card for the aunt that worries about your city lifestyle. Brooklyn activities happen at John Jay HS (237 7th Avenue), but they also have locations in Manhattan and the Bronx.

Food Bank for New York City / CHIPS
The Food Bank helps feed the 2.6 million New Yorkers who have a hard time affording food. During the ramp-up to Christmas, they need more help and have holiday volunteer programs. In Brooklyn, there’s Souper Saturdays, run by the Park Slope Christian Help (CHIPS) shelter and soup kitchen (200 4th Avenue). Volunteers prep and serve food to 200-300 people each day. If your Saturdays are reserved for boozy brunching, you can also volunteer in the soup kitchen Monday-Friday, from 9am to 3pm.

Animal Haven
Not that into people? Understandable, with all that talking they do. Fortunately, cute furry creatures need love this holiday too. Animal Haven (251 Centre Street, Manhattan) finds homes for abandoned cats and dogs and provides behavior training to increase their chances of adoption. You can volunteer to walk, feed and bathe pets, and you can also be Santa’s Little Helper by donating an item to them directly from their Amazon Wish List.

Typhoon Haiyan Relief
It was one of the biggest storms in history and over 10,000 people are still missing. I spent five years in the Philippines and everyone was always so quick to smile—even when they had three shirts to their name and five centavos in their pocket. The islands regularly get hit with natural disasters, so while Filipinos are definitely resilient, optimism can’t do what hard dollars can. The earthquake from earlier this year has already depleted the country’s disaster relief funds, so donate to one of many organizations helping the cause.

If you have the means, go nuts with the spending and gorge during holiday movie marathons. Dance to Mariah’s “All I Want For Christmas” in that snowflake onesie and revel in your indulgent purchases. Just remember that there are small easy ways to improve the lives of others over the holidays. So make like the Grinch and Scrooge (post-transformation, of course) and give.

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