A Trusted Friend in a Complicated World

15 Creative Ways to Volunteer and Make a Difference

If you have a favorite hobby or activity, volunteering for a related cause can make a big difference in your life—and someone else's.

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marathon runners legs running on city road

Stretch your marathon miles

If you love running marathons for charity but want to do even more, consider becoming a running partner for a sight-impaired runner. United in Stride matches visually-impaired athletes with sighted counterparts in marathons and shorter races across the entire country. If you have even more time to give, Achilles International is another organization that pairs volunteers with disabled runners of all kinds, including kids, and those who require specialized equipment. As an Achilles volunteer, you will commit to helping an athlete with a disability during weekly or bi-weekly training sessions, as well as during the race itself.

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newborn in the maternity ward

Give cuddles to newborns

It’s a sad fact of modern times that many infants are born addicted to heroin or opioids, and need to go through withdrawal. The withdrawal process for these littlest beings is long, painful, and filled with suffering; worse still, many of these newborns have no adult to soothe them through this process. Holding, cuddling, singing, and speaking to drug-addicted babies helps them recover more quickly, reports Uplift. Towards that end, volunteer initiatives known as cuddle care have sprung up nationwide. Volunteer cuddlers require a 4-hour course prior to cuddling. To get started, reach out to any local hospital which has a NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit), or check the list of participating hospitals. Addiction can happen to anyone, which is why it’s important to know the silent signs of pain pill addiction.

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Support America’s National Parks

From coast to coast, America’s National Parks provide a protective haven for wildlife and boundless adventures for people. Park budgets have shrunk, reducing access, and eliminating multiple programs. You can help by volunteering, either long- or short-term at your local, national park. You can also make park volunteerism the cornerstone of an unforgettable vacation, during National Park Week or anytime. Families can start a tradition of giving back, by doing volunteer work together. Many national parks have volunteering opportunities specifically geared towards children. You can learn more at the National Park Foundation’s website, or through the National Park Service. Get inspired by checking out these spectacular photos of America’s National Parks.

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Grandson holding grandpa's hands

Ease loneliness in the elderly

Imagine rarely experiencing physical touch, or not having someone to talk to. Human beings thrive on connection. Multiple studies show that friendship can prolong life, as well as enhance the quality of it. All too often, the simple joy of human interaction disappears for people as they age. There are a multitude of ways you can combat that reality by volunteering for the elderly. Things you can do include visiting seniors in assisted living facilities or in hospice centers. You can also volunteer through local organizations, such as ElderFriends, or Elder Helpers. Have a special skill? Teaching it to an older individual can help keep their brains sharp. Learn about teaching computer skills to the elderly through VolunteerMatch. There are 5 countries where people aging well—but America is not one of them.

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Hold a tag sale for a cause

If you and your friends and neighbors have more stuff than your homes can hold, consider throwing a block-long tag sale and donate 100 percent of the proceeds to a local school (or other charity of your choice). If you earmark your earnings for something specific, such as new books, art supplies, or an IT makeover, you can reach out to companies who support that mission and ask them to match the funds. Get the schoolchildren involved by having them sell baked goods or lemonade. Then discover the 25 things in your attic that could be worth money.

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Asian woman picking bottle into plastic bag black for cleaning the beach in morning time, Volunteer concept.

Protect ocean wildlife

Need another reason not to vape? Like other plastic, bottles, bags, cans, cigarette butts, and assorted debris those tiny, plastic vape tanks that are littering city streets end up in the ocean—and it’s killing wildlife. Fish, ocean mammals and birds mistake tiny bits of plastic for food, and eat it. Others get tangled up or strangled in debris. You can make a difference by volunteering to clean up waterways, such as rivers and oceans, through the Ocean Conservancy‘s year-round efforts. Join a neighborhood cleanup campaign, or start your own. You know the saying: charity begins at home. You can me a big difference just by swapping out these 30 reusable versions of things you use every day for greener versions.

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Group of diversity people volunteer arm around

Find your match

If you’re not sure where to begin, a clearinghouse like your local United Way chapter, Points of Light, or VolunteerMatch can help. “Our platform gives volunteers the ability to search for opportunities that adhere to their skill level or learning outcomes,” says Basil Sadiq, marketing associate at VolunteerMatch. “Volunteering is a great way to learn a new skill or put an existing skill into practice, all the while giving back to the community.” More than 110,000 nonprofits work with VolunteerMatch to post their volunteering needs. Search them based on a cause you’re passionate about and/or the skills you’d like to share or develop. This inspiring volunteer story from President Jimmy Carter will encourage you to lend a hand.

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Medium shot of an actor reciting his lines on a sofa while other actors rehearsing in the background

Strut your stuff

If you love the spotlight and are involved with community theater production, join an organization that puts on performances for charity. Or build a community theater that gives back—in Columbiana, Ohio, a town that won our Nicest Places in America search, every person who wants to participate in the local playhouse gets to perform. Musicians on Call is another nonprofit for performers; its mission is to share music with hospital patients in 12 cities. Small, quirky options abound for someone who is into the arts.

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Fresh delicious cake and birthday caps on table against color background. Space for text
New Africa/Shutterstock

Plan a party

Take your birthday-bash skills to the next level when you volunteer with Brightening Birthdays, a project of Volunteers of America. You’ll help bring birthday celebrations (cake, presents, hats, the works!) to kids and families struggling with homelessness. Some hospice agencies and senior centers also plan celebrations for their clients, and you can help. Or, name a cause you’d love to support (say, research and advocacy for a particular medical condition) and you can join up with a nonprofit that needs your time and talent to plan special events.

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Close-up of hands knitting

Get crafty

Like to knit or sew? There are tons of ways to share your skills with people who need help. Did you know you can knit a prosthetic breast for a woman who’s had a mastectomy? Yes, with Knitted Knockers! More options:

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The front wheel of a motorcycle. Close up brakes and spokes

Make very special deliveries

This one’s for the motorcyclists out there. Your local bike club probably does charitable work. Some women’s bike groups take on very precious cargo: donated breast milk. When the New York Milk Bank asked the Sirens Women’s Motorcycle Club of New York City for help, its members stepped up right away. They now use their bikes to take “liquid gold” (expressed breast milk) from donation depots to a pasteurizing center to hospitals and other places where needy babies are waiting.

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African artisan working with a chop saw in woodwork workshop

Build and rebuild

If you know your way around a set of tools (or a paintbrush), you can help veterans by supporting Purple Heart Homes. Through this group, veterans help other vets build or maintain their homes. Civilians can help out too, especially with fundraising and other behind-the-scenes jobs. Prefer to focus on kids and community spaces? Check out KaBOOM!, which works with communities to build and improve parks and playgrounds, so children can have access to fresh air and safe places to be active. You don’t need any prior knowledge or skills to contribute to a KaBOOM build.

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beauty smiling female programmer using computer working in office and typing data code to developing new system protection online user security.
PR Image Factory/Shutterstock

Create code

Code for America is always looking for volunteers with technical skills. You can join a local brigade of this “Peace Corps for Geeks,” or “hack from home” to help address community problems with innovative technological solutions. Past projects have created an app that matches addicts with recovery programs and a website that makes it easier to apply for food stamp benefits. If video games are your favorite kind of tech, help raise money for worthy causes while you play. For example, Games Done Quick has a  twice-yearly speed-running marathon that benefits charity.

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bearded senior man in glasses sitting on the couch and working with laptop at home

Volunteer virtually

Prefer to volunteer without leaving your home? “VolunteerMatch has over 6,000 virtual volunteer opportunities you can do from anywhere, including blogging about vegetarian recipes for a sustainable nonprofit, translating Spanish for a state-wide volunteer center, and becoming a crisis text line volunteer who provides relief to people suffering from trauma in just a few taps,” says Sadiq.

Read and share these quotes about forgiveness which can help you or someone let go of grudges and live a happier life!

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Closeup of wooden foot bridge on hiking trail in mountain over flowing river with mossy rocks./Closeup of Wooden Foot Bridge on hiking trail in mountain

Hike or climb for a higher cause

Hikers can offer helping hands (and feet). If you’re a hiker who happens to live near the Appalachian Trail, you can join a corps of over 6,000 volunteers who work to keep the trail in shape for its visitors. Volunteers perform basic maintenance but also contribute to bigger projects like building bridges. You can add service to a hiking vacation through the American Hiking Society’s Volunteer Vacations, which features trail projects as well as time off to explore public lands. In the San Francisco Bay area, GirlVentures seeks hikers to help with its outdoor adventures for adolescent girls, and rock climbers to mentor girls in its after-school climbing class.

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Dog With Sticking Out Tongue Sitting In A Car Seat

Help a pet get to a new home

Say you love animals and want to help rescued pets, but you can’t foster any in your home or commit to a once-a-week walking time at your local shelter. You can help by transporting pets instead: Pilots are needed, but so are everyday folks with a vehicle and a couple of hours to give. Sign up for a shift when and where you can, and you’ll help a homeless pet make the journey to its new forever home.

Catherine Holecko
Catherine Holecko is a contributor to RD.com’s Advice and Culture sections, where she writes about parenting, relationships, and pets. You can also read her work online at Highlights, Parents, and Verywell, and listen to her daily podcast at parentingroundabout.com. Catherine earned her BA in English at the University of Pennsylvania.
Corey Whelan
Corey is a wellness and psychology writer based in New York City. Her work has been published by a wide variety of consumer sites, including Healthline, Verywell Health and Well + Good. Corey's groundbreaking in-person and online educational programs on family building have been covered by Newsweek, Time, Inc. and other outlets.