When Once-A-Year Volunteers Strike

‘Tis the season for giving back—but what happens when there’s a surplus of samaritans?

By Marianella Orlando November 3, 2015 Published in the November 2015 issue of Houstonia Magazine

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Image: Shutterstock

It’s 11 a.m., and time for lunch at The Beacon Day Center, a non-profit that provides meals, laundry services and showers to the homeless in downtown Houston. About 400 people fill the bright cafeteria, waiting for one of today’s specials: ham and lima beans mixed with macaroni, or king ranch chicken casserole. When they get through the line, they take their plates to the facility’s round lunch tables, where they sit down on plastic chairs to enjoy their meals.

Rafael Hakeng, a 52-year-old volunteer, is racing between the kitchen and the lunchroom to wipe off the tables after each meal. He’s a regular at The Beacon, volunteering there five days a week, from 6:30 a.m. until 2 p.m., for the past five years. “They need people to help, and I’m happy to be here,” he says. “I bus the tables, I work on the floor and make sure it’s clean.” But as Thanksgiving approaches, plenty of would-be volunteers would gladly take his spot.

The holidays are a season of plenty, when Houstonians make lots of donations, of both their money and time. Soup kitchens in particular get an influx of volunteers, and as a result, getting a slot behind the steam table can be a bit of a blood sport.

This time of year, Volunteer Houston, a non-profit organization that helps people find opportunities throughout the city and surrounding areas, constantly receives requests from people looking to be first to apply at area soup kitchens, especially for the bigger seasonal celebrations. “After a sign-up day goes live and is posted, you can watch opportunities just fly off the page,” says Cameron Waldner, the organization’s CEO. He says the best time to sign up is at the end of October, as larger groups—families, corporate teams and church organizations—fill up many slots in advance. From then all the way through January, charities experience a surge of applications.

And when the holiday hubbub’s all over? The numbers drop. Even the well-staffed Beacon sees its volunteer rolls decline once the last Auld Lang Syne has been sung. Part of the reason for that, of course, is the return of school and work commitments. During the holidays, “people want to give back in some way, and they have more time than they normally do,” says Jonathan Holland, The Beacon’s operations director. “It’s a time of togetherness for families and communities.” 

Waldner points out that other opportunities often go overlooked, no matter the time of year. These include organizations serving veterans, which have some of the greatest needs in Houston, adult and child literacy programs, nursing facilities and hospitals, and groups doing trash-cleanup. For people wishing to volunteer, he suggests trying one of these, and, where possible, spreading the love to non-holiday months. “In the long run, there’s help that needs to be done [at other times] just as much as it needs to be done on Thanksgiving Day,” says Waldner. “It really needs to occur throughout the rest of the year.” 

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