Volunteering may look a little different these days, but as we near the end of a difficult year, giving back is more important than ever. Fallout from the pandemic has had the greatest impact on those who were already struggling. But volunteering to teach a child to read, provide food to families struggling to make ends meet or fundraise for non-profits who suddenly have extra costs, can make a real difference. Volunteering also strengthens bonds within a community by connecting people from different backgrounds. For the volunteer, giving back creates a feeling of wellbeing and sense of purpose.
Esther Goldstein, for example, decided to volunteer as a tutor because she wanted to combine her love for reading and teaching. One of the most gratifying aspects of tutoring, she says, is “seeing a child’s confidence grow as they become a better reader. They stand taller as they progress from struggling through a simple sentence to fluently reading paragraphs and chapter books.”
This holiday, as we give thanks for what we have, let’s take a moment to consider how to contribute. We’ve decided to highlight the work of three organizations, along with various volunteer opportunities, from in-person to remote options, with varying levels of time or financial commitments.
Augustine Literacy Project
The Augustine Literacy Project (ALP) provides volunteer tutors to economically disadvantaged students in first through third grades. Helen Hope Kimbrough, Engagement and Recruitment Manager, says that “one-on-one tutoring can really help students learn to read, write and spell so they can move forward successfully in school.”
The results of the program speak for themselves: children receiving at least 30 tutoring sessions improve their literacy skills by 1.7 grade levels, on average.
ALP’s ultimate goal is to build success in reading to keep children in school. To do that, they focus on reaching poor readers before schooling transitions from “learning to read to reading to learn,” which typically happens by the end of third grade. A child unable to read by this time will continue to struggle with learning and is four times more likely to drop out of high school.
This is particularly disheartening because less than 40% of third graders in Charlotte are reading at grade level, and school disruptions could further disadvantage children who were already behind.
ALP tutoring is taking place on Zoom this year, but the online version of the program continues to follow their research-based, multi-sensory method. And yes, a summer pilot program showed that even across a screen a trained tutor could still effectively engage a child in all steps of the program.
Tutors do not need a teaching background, just a willingness to commit to a week-long training course and to meet with a child twice a week.
Shelter is a fundamental part of our physical and emotional safety – especially during a pandemic. Roof Above, created from the merger of the Urban Ministry Center and the Men’s Shelter of Charlotte, runs a shelter for people experiencing homelessness. They also have a drop-in day services center so that those without permanent shelter can access basic necessities like showers, meals and a computer lab to check emails and job postings.
But looking beyond immediate needs is equally important says Randall Hitt, Roof Above’s Chief Engagement Officer, because to end homelessness we need to “invert the issue of homelessness as a problem and focus discussions on solutions.”
Homelessness is a complex problem, but in Charlotte, where around 3,000 people lack permanent shelter. Roof Above offers employment advice for shelter residents to deal with the income side of the equation, but the real solution lies in affordable housing. Affordability is based on a simple metric: housing should not cost more than 30% of a family’s or individual’s income. This means that someone working full time, earning slightly more than minimum wage, should spend around $350-500 per month on rent. But in Charlotte, the average two-bedroom costs over $1100 per month.
As a part of a larger effort to address the housing crisis, in September, Roof Above purchased a low-income housing complex in east Charlotte with a broad base of community support and funding.
Volunteers at Roof Above have traditionally filled roles like laundry attendant or front desk ambassador at the day services center. Once it’s safe to ease COVID restrictions, Roof Above will resume these and other in-person opportunities. But in the interim, individuals and groups can still help from home. A popular option is making and delivering sandwiches so guests can grab an easy, to-go meal.
Shelter-in-place restrictions this spring had an unfortunate and unintended consequence – an increase in domestic violence. Within weeks of the shelter-in-place restrictions coming into effect, calls to Safe Alliance’s emergency hotline shot up by 45% as those at risk were suddenly in closer contact with their abusers. Even now, the monthly call volume is 20% higher than in previous years.
Karen Parker, President and CEO of Safe Alliance, notes that not only have calls to the hotline increased since the spring, but those seeking help must resolve a more complex set of barriers before they can leave their abusers. Child care, school closures and economic insecurity all rank high on the list of concerns.
In addition to the emergency hotline, Safe Alliance offers shelter services, a sexual trauma resource center and legal advice for those fleeing an abusive partner. The shelter has room for 120 people – usually around 40 families and a few individuals. When COVID hit, half of the families were moved into hotels. Part of the immediate need is to meet these extra costs.
Safe Alliance has a range of volunteer opportunities. A good place to start may be their online training course to prepare for in-person volunteering (when it resumes). Another is to purchase items from Safe Allliance’s Amazon wish list – diapers rank pretty high on the needs of families at the shelter, along with personal care items like soap and shampoo.
For all three organizations listed here, and others in Charlotte, creating a fundraising page on Facebook or Instagram is a fantastic way to help a non-profit keep up with programing costs.
As organizations slowly lift social distancing requirements, in-person volunteering will become more available. But even with modifications to the “normal” ways we help each other, it’s still possible to make a meaningful impact in the community.
Esther has started tutoring a new child this year. It was a real “proud parent” moment, she says, when the child she had been tutoring for two years was able to read well enough to graduate from the program. As Esther and her new student make their way through the reading program, he too will soon be standing taller, confident in his ability to sound out words using the skills she teaches him.