THE BLOG
11/24/2010 09:15 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Give Thanks All Year by Volunteering

With hunger in America at disturbingly high levels, chances are your community is having a food drive this month, or you've thought about volunteering at a soup kitchen in the spirit of the holiday season. In many communities, however, getting that choice Thanksgiving Day serving slot may require having booked it months ago. For example, the New York City Coalition Against Hunger reports that about half of the soup kitchens and food pantries it surveyed don't need any more volunteers, despite acute levels of hunger in the city.

So if you're moved to help, think beyond that one day "feel good" opportunity and look for a way to have an even greater impact on hunger, and the root causes of poverty, in your town.

If you are one of these people who have not found a way to make volunteering part of your life on a regular basis, there are many ways to get involved depending on your interests, location, and personal goals. Start by answering these questions:

What's your availability? Would a regular schedule each week work well for you -- maybe a couple of hours during the school day? Or would the occasional weekend project make more sense? Some people take volunteer vacations, while others may take months or even a whole year off between school terms or jobs and serve essentially full-time during that intensive period.

What do you like to do? Some people have a special skill to offer, often a skill they use in their regular jobs. But you may prefer to do something totally different -- if you work in an office all day, maybe you want to get your hands dirty or try something new you're not an expert in.

With whom do you want to serve? Do you have a group of friends or family who might join you? Or do you want to use your volunteer experience to meet new people?

What do you want to get out of your experience? While many people want to serve simply to advance a cause they care about or make a difference in their community, it's absolutely fine to serve to achieve other goals. Making friends, learning or practicing new skills, gaining career experience, or staying active are all common and perfectly logical reasons to volunteer.

If you can answer all these questions, begin your search. Today, numerous free volunteer search services are available on the Internet. For example, the Entertainment Industry Foundation's iParticipate website shows volunteer opportunities on a Google map and enables users to invite friends to join them through Facebook. Other online sites include the federal government's Serve.gov, volunteermatch.org, and 1-800-volunteer.org.

If you live in a city, check the Cities of Service website to see if your mayor has a plan to use service as a strategy to meet priority needs. These high impact initiatives will be launching throughout the year.

Another option is to contact a local volunteer center, such as a "HandsOn Action" site in your community, which will help you find volunteer projects that align your passion with real needs in your area. You can become trained to become a volunteer leader or use your professional skills to help a local nonprofit organization.

Older adults may look for "RSVP" programs, while youths may participate with a community service club or other volunteer group in their school, college, place of worship, or recreation center. Any of these organizations may be able to point you to service opportunities or engage you in their own projects.

If you live in an area with few service organizations, or prefer to work on your own, you can organize your own project and recruit others to join you. "Self-organized" projects have become increasingly popular as social networking sites make it easy to advertise to your "friends" and savvy organizations make tools available online for those who want to lead an activity rather than join a preorganized project.

For example, AARP's site, CreatetheGood.org, tells you "how to" organize a food drive, sign families up for food assistance, help a child learn financial literacy, or create a caring community for an elderly neighbor. Do Something, targeted at teens, offers a search function just for youths -- none of the suggested projects requires funding, parental involvement, or a car.

Finally, if you are in a position to give a year of your time, consider joining AmeriCorps. AmeriCorps programs are hosted by organizations all over the country and engage a wide range of individuals, young and old with all educational backgrounds. You can serve in your own community or travel to another site for a different experience. Full-time AmeriCorps members receive a modest living allowance plus health and child care benefits, and if they complete their term of service, a Segal AmeriCorps education award of about $5,000. Many AmeriCorps programs advertise locally or online for members, and you can search the AmeriCorps.gov site for opportunities.

You may not get to ladle soup in a shelter, but you can do something to fight record levels of hunger this Thanksgiving by making a long-term commitment to volunteering. Take a break from football and pumpkin pie to find the right opportunity for you.