11/22/2010 03:38 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Beyond the Soup Kitchen

It's that time of year again. The one time of year--maybe even the only time of year--we seriously think about doing it. Volunteering.

It had become part of our family Thanksgiving tradition - sort of. It'd go like this: Order the turkey? Check. Get Bubbi's chutney recipe? Check. Charge up the electric knife? Check. Find a soup kitchen nearby to feed the homeless on Thanksgiving morning to remind the family that we are all grateful to have an abundance of food on the table and not everyone is so fortunate so we should give back to those in need in our community this holiday? Um. Oh yeah. Check?

Cue our annual, last-minute scramble to find a local charity or nearby homeless shelter feeding people on Thanksgiving. We'd call and email offering ways to help cook or serve food, set tables or do dishes, sweep floors. Make no mistake: We're hard-working volunteers up for pretty much any job. But by the time my family would actually find a volunteer opportunity for Thanksgiving Day, most of the spots would have already been filled, and we'd never get to do it. Apparently, we were not the only ones with this meaningful idea.

It only took a few disappointed Thanksgivings for me to realize that the people who actually get to volunteer on Thanksgiving Day probably made feeding the homeless more of a priority than I did the other 364 days of the year. They are probably the same people who have volunteered to load food trucks on chilly mornings in February, stocked food pantries in May, and served hot soup on even hotter days in August, year round.

So I started looking around for other ways to volunteer. I wanted to know what else was out there. I went online and used zip code searches, matching sites, Google. Then I became frustrated with just how difficult it was to find great ways to help. I became officially fixated, as in up-all-night, glued-to-the-computer obsessed. Not just with finding causes that were meaningful to me and my family, but with the whole notion of helping people find easy to do volunteer opportunities locally - on and beyond the annual day of turkey overload. The Good News? There are thousands - repeat thousands - of insanely meaningful, moving ways to help every single day of the year.

But ok, this is about Thanksgiving, and we've all got turkeys to buy and cranberries to contend with.

Maybe the best way for those of us who don't volunteer to feed the homeless all the time to make a difference this Thanksgiving is to go Beyond the Soup Kitchen. Instead of frantically looking for a place to feed people on Thursday, why not make a more lasting commitment to volunteering for the issues we care about year round? Maybe this Thanksgiving we all can honor what we are grateful for - shelter, education, health, family, friends, animals, food - by pledging to find a volunteer opportunity that gives that to others too. And not just on Thanksgiving.

Think about it. What if everyone gathered around your Table this Thanksgiving Day not only had to share with everyone what they were grateful for (I'm sure my family is not the only one that inflicts this dreaded ritual on all who attend our Thanksgiving gatherings...) But what if you were also asked to share how you plan to honor your gratitude by finding a way to volunteer to give that to others too?

I'm thinking this could be the beginning of a family tradition that makes a difference well beyond the holiday season. And you never know: maybe next Thanksgiving you'll have an "in" at your local soup kitchen and you'll be making a difference with other grateful volunteers on turkey day too.

How to get started?

Find ways to make a difference everyday and volunteer opportunities worth trying at Our editor's handpick the best opportunities that are easy and fun to do. Click here to sample just a few: Feed your City, Give Shelter, Green your City, Create Courage, Go Wild for Animals, Tutor & Mentor Youth, or Off Beat Opps.

Or get inspired by our iVolunteer Voices, people you may or may not know who are making a difference: Lisa Ling, Usher, Sienna Miller, Blair Underwood, Jane Buckingham, and Dorothy Lucey to name a few.