10 Fresh Ways to Give Back

Photos by Emily Repech, Kim Hearn, Rebuilding Together Peninsula

The gift-giving season is here, but giving back is something you can do all year round. And while you shouldn’t hesitate to pull out your checkbook or donate online to a worthy cause, there are also countless ways you can give of yourself. What do you care about? What’s your passion? With a little bit of hunting, you can find meaningful opportunities to help out close to home. Even setting aside a little bit of time can make a difference. Here’s a sampling of some hands-on ways to volunteer in our Peninsula community. For more ideas, volunteermatch.com is a handy resource for finding just the right fit for you.

  1. Make an Animal Friend 

    Pets In Need, Northern California’s first no-kill animal shelter, is looking for a few good neighbors willing to make a shelter dog’s day. Founded in 1965 and headquartered in Redwood City, Pets In Need also operates the Palo Alto Animal Shelter, a public shelter serving Palo Alto, Los Altos and Los Altos Hills. Through the Doggy Day Out program, volunteers take dogs on half-day field trips, whether it’s a relaxing morning at home, a visit to a park for playtime or even a hike on one of the Peninsula’s dog-friendly trails. At the time of the outing, volunteers are provided with everything they need, including food, treats, a leash and an “Adopt Me” vest for the dog. Visit petsinneed.org to register. (Slots are posted on the 15th for the following month.) You can also browse adoptable pets and learn about fostering—taking in cats, dogs, kittens and puppies that aren’t quite ready to be adopted. Pets In Need provides the food, supplies and medical care. You provide the love.

  2. Bake a Difference

    If the thought of icing a cake triggers euphoria, Icing Smiles needs your help. This nonprofit organization provides custom celebration cakes and other treats to local families impacted by the critical illness of a child. Whether you’re a professional baker or a hobbyist, opportunities include donating a dream cake (three-dimensional or carved), fun cake (single-tier) and custom decorated cookies. Families suggest a theme, and the execution is determined by the baker. Menlo Park volunteer Shoshanah Cohen has whipped up everything from alligators to unicorns and rainbows. While the designs can be complex, the mission is simple: Create a positive memory and a temporary escape from worry. Go to icingsmiles.org to join the roster of Sugar Angels donating their time and talent. To get added to the volunteer database, you’ll need to share an online gallery or attach a few photos of your work.

  3. Become a Weed Warrior

    Looking for a way to help the environment? You’re living in a globally recognized hotspot for biodiversity, but keeping our local part of the planet vibrant and healthy takes work. Grassroots Ecology engages over 12,000 people of all ages each year to keep invasive plants in check, grow locally native plants, support stream restoration and water quality monitoring projects and plant a diversity of species to feed wildlife. To see a calendar of upcoming activities and sign up, go to grassrootsecology.org. Whether you’re helping with habitat restoration at Byrne Preserve in Los Altos Hills or joining a team of Wednesday Weed Warriors at Pearson-Arastradero Preserve, come prepared to work outdoors; long pants and long sleeves are recommended along with sturdy, closed-toed shoes good for hiking hilly terrain. Gloves, tools and light snacks are provided as well as the opportunity to bask in the beautiful views around us.

  4. Horse Around with Kids

    Located in the training barn area of the Horse Park at Woodside, B.O.K. (short for Be Okay) Ranch helps riders regardless of special needs enjoy the physical, mental and emotional bond that develops with horses. B.O.K.’s equine-assisted activities include full-inclusion riding lessons, vocational programs and summer camps, all with the intent of encouraging a sense of well-being and accomplishment. For example, individuals who may have challenges with mobility can improve muscle tone, balance, core strength and overall body awareness while riders with limited expressive language can be inspired by interacting with horses. Volunteers assist with grooming, tacking, preparing students and horses for lessons and general stable management—with horse handlers, side-walkers and spotters helping out during lessons. Experience with horses or those with special needs isn’t required. Visit bokranch.org to fill out an online application and sign up for B.O.K.’s volunteer orientation and training. Volunteers are asked to commit to a once-a-week shift for a minimum of eight consecutive weeks.

  5. Rebuild a Better Peninsula

    President Jimmy Carter is 95 and continues to wield a hammer, partnering with Habitat for Humanity to build houses. In October, he generated headlines by returning to a construction site with a black eye just days after a fall. Not everyone can be The Peanut Farmer. But if you have any background in construction or are just all-around handy, Rebuilding Together Peninsula (RTP) is looking for volunteers. RTP provides renovation and repair services for the Peninsula’s most vulnerable homeowners—seniors, veterans, persons with disabilities, low-income families with children and community facilities. If you’re a problem-solver and experienced project manager, you can be a “Construction Captain,” meeting with homeowners or nonprofit managers to scope project requirements and determine effective repair methods. Lending a hand can also be as simple as raking, shoveling and doing painting prep work. The organization relies on individual volunteers to help prepare for National Rebuilding Day, the last Saturday in April, along with year-round repair projects depending on skills, interests and availability. Check out rebuildingtogetherpeninsula.org for ways to help build a more inclusive Peninsula for everyone.

  6. Share your Interests with a Senior

    Are you a local history buff? Would you enjoy sharing vacation photos from a recent trip? Do you love music, cooking or reading? A captive, kind and understanding audience eagerly awaits you. With the goal of helping aging adults maintain their dignity, independence and sense of usefulness, Peninsula Volunteers Inc. serves the mid-Peninsula and Silicon Valley through programs like Rosener House, Little House and Meals on Wheels. At Rosener House, an adult day program for those with Alzheimer’s and other dementias, any skill you’re willing to contribute can trigger access to memories and stimulate conversation. Teach a ukulele or art class or grab your band and perform at Little House, a senior activity center focused on health, wellness and social interaction. Pack food or deliver meals and a smile to homebound adults for Meals on Wheels. Learn more and fill out a volunteer application form at penvol.org. Ranging from one-time events to an ongoing commitment, you’ll find countless ways to get involved.

  7. Take Time to Teach

    You can spend 90 minutes a week stuck in traffic, so why not repurpose that lost time for some proactive education? As a volunteer for Citizen Teacher, a nationwide organization that’s recently teamed up with McKinley Institute of Technology in Redwood City, you’ll lead a 10-week apprenticeship on a topic of your choosing for an hour and a half each week. Welcome a generation of students into science, architecture, law, business and more. Throughout the country, Citizen Teacher has organized mentorships in documentary filmmaking, running for office, college prep, electrical engineering and pretty much any area of interest. You receive five hours of training on how to make your course engaging and keep students on task. Apprenticeships are taught between 2PM and 6PM, either during fall or spring semesters. Can’t commit 100 percent but still interested? Many apprenticeships are taught by teams of Citizen Teachers of two to four co-workers or friends. Everyone has something they can teach—what can you contribute? Visit citizenschools.org to learn how you can help students discover and achieve their dreams.

  8. Eliminate Illiteracy 

    If you can read this, then you can help. With programs in San Mateo, Menlo Park, Redwood City and East Palo Alto, Project Read is a volunteer-based literacy program serving adults, children and families. The award-winning organization provides literacy training and tutoring lessons designed to break the cycle of illiteracy by surrounding adults, youth and families with literacy services that promote a lifelong love of learning. In Redwood City, for example, one in five adults reads below an 8th grade level and more than 38% of school-aged children fail to complete the 12th grade. Within Redwood City’s North Fair Oaks area, there are few options available for after-school activities in supportive educational environments. Since 1987, Project Read has provided adult services to 400 adults in Redwood City, increased reading skills by an average of three grade levels in a single year and trained over 150 volunteer tutors. Tutors complete 15 hours of training prior to being matched with a learner. Projectreadredwoodcity.org and projectreadmenlopark.org are a few sites to help you get started.

  9. Offer Threads of Comfort

    Collecting, sorting, labeling and counting clothes may sound like a simple act of service but when volunteering with the Grateful Garment Project, it’s a deed that can significantly assist a person in their darkest hours. Every day in California, between 25 to 40 victims of sexual assault are provided with clothing and resources from San Jose-based Grateful Garment. The organization sources clothing from the public and is always in need of contributions. Donate a box of unused clothes or organize a drive in your community to gather garments for a person in need. When sexual assault victims seek medical attention and rape kits are performed, they are asked to surrender their clothing for DNA evidence—leaving them with little else to wear than a hospital gown. Grateful Garment is there with a warm response. Find out more ways to get involved at gratefulgarment.org

  10. Assist with Immigration

    If you think navigating the American legal system is difficult, imagine being a non-native English speaker. The Immigration Institute of the Bay Area (IIBA) is always seeking volunteer support, ranging from one-time events to long-term commitments. IIBA Redwood City provides immigration legal services, monthly citizenship workshops and free citizenship classes in San Mateo County. Everyone is welcome—from attorneys seeking immigration experience to law students looking for an internship to community members who want to help. The IIBA provides training and supervision to volunteers. Check iibayarea.org or call 650.780.7530 for specific volunteer opportunities at any given time. Examples include office assistance, Spanish-English translation support for the legal staff preparing immigration applications and volunteer teachers for IIBA’s Citizenship Preparation Class.