Chef Fernando Huerta, pictured right, donating his time with the “Dinner’s On Us” program to provide take-home, chef-prepared family meals to Houstonians in need.

1Feed the food insecure. 

You’ve seen the lines trailing down the streets of people waiting to pick up donated food, so we don’t need to tell you that food insecurity has skyrocketed over the past year. Donating to the Houston Food Bank is always a good place to start, but to put in some volunteer hours at another local nonprofit aimed at alleviating hunger, hit up Second Servings, which rescues food from retailers, large venues, and hotels, then gives it to those in need.

Between March and October, Second Servings had already distributed more than 100,000 meals to Houstonians, many of whom have been forced to choose between paying rent and buying groceries because of furloughs or layoffs. The organization can always use help, even for a couple of hours a week, Second Servings President Barbara Bronstein says.

“We’re adding volunteers on a daily basis,” says Bronstein. Volunteers typically ride with contract drivers to distribute meals to both individuals and nonprofits, who then provide them to those in need. “It’s always fun and eye-opening to see just how much food, and the high quality of what we send out.” secondservingshouston.org

—Timothy Malcolm 

2Run (virtual) races for charity. 

Between the crowded starting lines, profuse sweating, and heavy breathing, it comes as no surprise that most marathons have bitten the dust thanks to Covid-19 concerns. But you can still stretch your legs for a good cause because many of our favorite races, including the 2021 Chevron Houston Marathon and the Aramco Houston Half-Marathon, have gone virtual. Even better? You can do the race on your own time (run wherever you want, whenever you want between Jan. 8 and 17, 2021), fill up on all those endorphins, and do some good because of the marathon’s Run for a Reason program.

The program itself isn’t new, but while you always have the option to use your race to fundraise for a specific nonprofit, it’s working a bit differently this time around. In fact, you don’t even have to pound the pavement to help raise money for a worthy cause. Simply choose one of the charitable organizations partnering with the marathon and set up a “Just Fundraise” account. You’ll then be given a personal page where you can share your story and track your fundraising efforts. “The page is linked directly to the charitable organization,” explains Augie Rayner, the Marathon’s charity program manager, “so, the donations go straight to them. Individuals don’t even have to deal with collecting checks.” chevronhoustonmarathon.com

— Emma Schkloven 

Image: Amy Kinkead

3Help out our furry (and scaly, feathered, and finned) friends. 

People aren’t the only ones in need of some love right now, and as Houstonians grappled with pandemic fall-out, Friends for Life made sure our animal citizens were taken care of as well. “When the pandemic started, we saw so many pet-loving Houstonians struggling to care for their animals. Faced with a lose-lose-lose situation, we put together and distributed—for free—the resources that enabled those families to keep their animals, in a time when togetherness is so important,” Development Director Lena Lieb says. “We do that by meeting people where they are, without judgment, knowing that we are all doing the best we can with what we have available.”

Not only is Friends for Life a no-kill shelter (which is two paws up in our book), the nonprofit also takes in the animals that need emergency surgery and lifelong medical care. A little goes a long way, too. “We’ve always been able to stretch even seemingly small donations of just $5 to do so much for families right here in Houston, and we’ve committed to continue doing that for months to come,” Lieb says. “We’re showing up for Houston the only way we know how: fully.” Whether you chip in for items on Friends’ wish lists, get involved with its sponsor programs, or donate the traditional way, this good deed will get your tail wagging. friends4life.org

— ES 

4. Help someone get their interview outfit.

If all this time at home hasn’t led you to reevaluate what’s in your closet already, find some motivation to cleaning your wardrobe out now from this: Those Banana Republic slacks and that suit hanging next to them for the past two years have never really, you know, suited you, and could help one of the thousands of Houstonians left unemployed because of the pandemic land a new job. So put your good-as-new professional clothes to some better use by donating them to one of these charities aimed at getting people interview ready.

Men’s clothes: Career Gear Houston—Over the past decade Career Gear Houston has helped more than 20,000 young and adult men find jobs. Clients have to be referred by one of 87 member organizations, like the Salvation Army and Texas Veterans Commission, says program coordinator Donald Jones, but once they are, Career Gear will suit them up and coach them on “how to sell yourself in an interview.” And after a client lands a job, Jones says, Career Gear will give them a week’s worth of work clothes. careergearhouston.org

Women’s clothes: Dress for Success—Similarly to Career Gear, member organizations, such as Houston Area Women’s Center, refer women to Dress for Success. From there DFS provides professional attire, an interview preparation course, a résumé review, and more, plus access to programs like ongoing career education and a professional women’s group once you get hired. The 22-year-old organization, which has aided more than 45,000 women to secure employment, is entirely funded by donations. DFS President Lauren Levicki Courville says it always makes an impact on clients to hear that. “Houston is supporting them in their journey to self-sufficiency,” she says. “That means so much to them.” dfshouston.org

— Catherine Wendlandt

5Give school supplies. 

Despite its name, the Houston Food Bank, the largest food bank in the country, dishes out more than just food. The organization has been running Teachers Aid, a program that provides school supplies to teachers in low-income schools across the food bank’s service area, for seven years. While any donation helps, by this point in the semester most teachers need pencils and pens, binders and notebooks, highlighters, USB drives, and hygiene products.

There’s always a demand for these supplies, but the HBA is expecting to see even more need this school year. “Donating to Teachers Aid is needed now more than ever for many reasons,” says Stephanie Berno, director of Outreach Services, noting the impact the pandemic has already had on students. “Seventy-five percent of HISD students are economically disadvantaged, and many virtual-school families are not receiving breakfast and lunch from school, which adds to the costs of having kids at home.” But while that reality is troubling, you have the power to do something about it. houstonfoodbank.org

— ES

6Safely connect with the elderly.

We’ve all likely experienced some loneliness in recent months, but, thanks to their particular vulnerability to the virus, our elderly Houstonians have been especially isolated during this pandemic. However, the holidays are here and you can bring them a bit of festive cheer by joining Interfaith Ministries’ Secret Santa Gift Bag Team. And what doesn’t make a person feel good about helping out Kris Kringle?

As part of the team, you’ll make holiday gift bags for some of the 4,900 Houston-area seniors the organization assists through its Meals on Wheels program. And don’t worry if you don’t know what to give them; Interfaith has put together a helpful list, complete with categories and even item suggestions, to guide your gifting. They’ve even checked it twice. imgh.org

— ES

7. Order a meal. 

Paying it forward while rocking pajamas and clutching a wine glass? Done. Order your takeout from Click Virtual Food Hall, which offers everything from Filipino street food to poke, and has optimized the delivery experience with bags that keep food hot. For every order of $30 or more, Click donates one meal to Kids’ Meals, which feeds food-insecure preschool-age children throughout Houston. clickvirtualfoodhall.com

— TM

8. Donate blood or plasma. 

With people staying inside, blood banks have seen a reduction in donations, a serious problem for hospital patients relying on transfusions. So, give a little of your own (you don’t need it all) at one of the Gulf Coast Regional Blood Center’s many donor centers. If you’ve recovered from Covid, you can also donate convalescent plasma, which can help others beat the virus. giveblood.org

9. Put your money where your heart is. 

As the ways Houstonians live, work, and play have all been abruptly and dramatically altered during the past year, that’s directly impacted the bottom line of countless local restaurants, shops, salons, and gyms where the downturn happened overnight and a return to even normal business activity has been moving at an almost glacial pace, Tim Jeffcoat, director of the Houston District Office of the U.S. Small Business Administration, says. “Their revenue has been diminished in many cases 75 to 90 percent, and they can’t sustain that,” says Jeffcoat. “They simply can’t stay in existence with no revenue.”

So how can you help out? Well, just by giving them your business, in some way. Purchase a gift certificate from your favorite Rice Village boutique or Heights bookshop. Stop by a store if you feel comfortable venturing out on the town. If you’d rather not, consider doing some curbside pickup or online shopping from the places you want to support (many have overhauled their services to offer both pickup and delivery in the wake of the shutdowns last spring). Likewise, help out your favorite local performer by finally buying those tracks and albums you’ve been streaming or some merch from the venues that always put on the best shows. While it might not seem like much, Jeffcoat says, every dollar can help them keep going.

— Denise Cathey

10Say “thank you.” 

Working on the front lines of the pandemic is an exhausting and arduous task, and one that has surely at times felt particularly thankless this year. (Ahem, like when some people were railing against wearing masks, for instance.) But there’s a way you can let key people know that they’re appreciated from wherever you happen to be. United Way of Greater Houston’s virtual Note of Encouragement allows you to send warm wishes to health care workers, essential staff, homebound seniors, or individuals in shelters. Since it’s online, you can share as much love through as many messages as you want. unitedwayhouston.org 

— ES