Some of the Greatest Gifts Can’t Be Wrapped

Volunteering your time, talents and hard work can have an especially significant impact on your community at this time of year–and beyond.

With the continued hardships prompted by a stubborn economic downturn, non-profit organizations and charities throughout the Twin Cities region are getting ready to assist thousands of families with food, gifts and various other necessities for the holidays.

Volunteering to help at a food shelf, homeless shelter, nursing home, hospital or other non-profit organization can have a major impact on your neighbors, as well as making the holiday more significant for those doing the volunteering.

No matter what your passion, concern or interest may be, there’s likely to be an organization that could use your unique talents and time–during the season and after. The website Volunteermatch.org, for instance, can connect you with countless local volunteering opportunities.

“With all this getting, consider giving a little back to make your hometown a better, brighter place this holiday season,” urges Jennie Bragg in CNN Money’s online article, “Help Out During the Holidays.” Buying holiday gifts “will put a hole in your wallet, but the gift of time won't cost you a cent.”

Here are just a few examples of ways you can turn someone’s potentially difficult or depressing holiday into one filled with hope and happiness:

Feeding hot meals

According to a KARE 11 report earlier this year, there are now about 13,000 Minnesotans who are homeless, a number that has grown since recession of 2008-09.

“Poor adults already living on the edge can be catapulted into homelessness by what otherwise might be considered a minor event, such as a child’s illness, loss of transportation to work, or a rental increase, because they don’t have a safety net,” Dakota Woodlands, a homeless shelter in Eagan, explains. “Small problems become huge catastrophes.”  

Many communities have agencies specifically there to help your neighbors down the street – for example, Neighbors, Inc. in South St. Paul – which offers a food shelf, clothing closet and more – is in need of Santa’s Helpers for their annual Holiday Program distribution. (EDIT)

The Neighborhood House in St. Paul is also seeking volunteers for its annual Holiday Dinner, on Dec. 15, during which a hot meal is served to more than 500 families. The facility needs people to help set up from 4 to 6 p.m., and to clean up/take down from 7 to 9 p.m.

Numerous food shelves throughout the Twin Cities will be providing holiday-season baskets of food to struggling families, and many welcome volunteers to assist with the assembly or distribution of these gifts, bringing a smile to hundreds of faces.

In Eagan, Dakota Woodlands is currently recruiting volunteers for meal preparation. This and other ways to make a difference can be found at their website: http://www.dakotawoodlands.org/volunteer.html.

Visiting nursing homes or hospitals

Beacon Hill in Minnetonka insists volunteers are vital and their service is one of the hallmarks of Presbyterian Homes.

Volunteers at Beacon Hill complete a variety of tasks, and they help to supplement staff service by doing the little "extras" and spending valuable time with the residents.

Woodbury Senior Living, along with other nursing homes throughout the Twin Cities, welcomes volunteers who offer companionship to residents and talents that will make their holidays brighter.

According to Kathy Dunleavy, Campus Director of Community Life/Recreation Therapy Services at Woodbury Senior Living, the need for volunteers is particularly acute right after New Year’s, when people seem to forget about the urge to volunteer.

"People think about it during the holidays and schedule it ahead of time, and we have carolers and family groups, and there’s something going on just about every day," she said. "But then after the holidays, when it’s dark and cold outside, and all those people go away, it’s a sad time of the year for many of our residents.”

And then there are hospitals. If there’s such a thing as a good time to be laid up, the holiday season isn’t it. Hospital volunteers can provide patients with invaluable help during the holiday season, not only bringing a bit of holiday spirit but also hope and happiness, which can help with the recovery process.

Helping those with infants

If there’s a soft spot in your heart for our smallest and most vulnerable neighbors this time of year, think diapers. A year-round necessity for infants, they are an especially helpful gift this time of year. The Diaper Drive could use help in all kinds of ways, but especially with establishing more drop-off locations and holding drives to collect this very simple,yet basic necessity.

Helping domestic abuse victims

If you have a special interest in or concern for domestic abuse victims, you can help make holidays brighter by donating your and talents to a local prevention agency.

For example, Cornerstone has numerous ways you can help, including the Santa Shop, a program at Cornerstone that enables children to “shop” for gifts for family members and experience the joy of giving.

Donating your used goods

Doing some cleaning around the house for the new year –including cleaning out your cabinets, closets and basement– can make your house feel "new" again.

“Donate anything that is still in good condition to a good cause,” Bragg said. “Your local Salvation Army or Goodwill accepts everything from clothing and furniture to old movies and cooking pans.”

Other non-profit organizations, such as the Courage Center, Vietnam Veterans of America, Disabled Veterans of America and the Lupus Foundation, will even send a truck out to your house to pick up what can become a treasure to others.

Homeless shelters such as Dakota Woodlands often provide a list of their most urgent needs as well as holiday gift ideas. Dakota Woodlands’ current requests for most-needed items can be found online at http://www.dakotawoodlands.org/current_needs.html.


Locally, Resource West, a Hopkins/Minnetonka family resource center, is collecting new, unwrapped toys for Toy Chest. The toys go directly to children in the local community. Visit Resource West online for a list of drop-off sites.

The Marine Corps’ Toys for Tots Foundation fulfills the wishes of children whose families cannot afford to give them gifts.


Food shelves such as the in Minnetonka are always in need of food or cash donations.

ICA Foodshelf features a "Current Needs" tab on their website to let people know what they could most use at any given time. At this time, they need: canned beans (black, northern, kidney), macaroni and cheese, bagged rice, peanut butter, jelly, canned salmon, vegetables (except green beans, corn or peas) and stuffing.

Non-food items on their wish list include a new camera, 8.5" x 11" acrylic frames and a laminator. ICA Foodshelf is open Monday-Friday 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and varied hours on Saturdays. 


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