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It’s the peak of the season of giving, with many people deciding to mark the holidays by volunteering, running donation drives, or making charitable contributions.
How are local nonprofits meeting the holiday outpouring? What are the unique capacity challenges they face in this season? And what do they actually need in terms of your time, money or gifts?
Produced by Margaret Barthel
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIt's the Holiday Season and a lot of people are getting into the spirit by giving back, volunteering their time. And when we say a lot of people, it really is a lot. So much so that some area nonprofits say that their service opportunities are booked up months before the holidays come around. In fact, a new report says that rates of volunteering across the country in 2018 jumped 25 percent since 2015 when the data was last collected. More than 30 percent of American adults volunteer. So what does that look like in the D.C. area? Joining me to talk about that is Jackie DeCarlo. She is the CEO of Manna Food Center in Montgomery County. Jackie DeCarlo, thank you for joining us?
MS. JACKIE DECARLOGreat to be here, Kojo.
NNAMDIAlicia Horton is the Executive Director of Thrive DC. Alicia, thank you for joining us.
MS. ALICIA HORTONThank you for having me.
NNAMDIAnd Robin Wiley is the President of the Holiday Project of the National Capital Region. Robin Wiley, thank you for joining us.
MS. ROBIN WILEYThank you for having me.
NNAMDIAll three of you run organizations that help give back to the local community. Just briefly, can you explain what your organizations are and who exactly they serve? I'll start with you Alicia Horton.
HORTONThank you. Thrive DC is a homeless services organization. We provide an array of services from emergency to step-up services for individuals, who are experiencing instability in their housing and economic crisis. So we serve about 200, 250 people a day meals, showers, laundry, emergency pantry and employment readiness, a whole host of things.
DECARLOAt Manna Food Center we're trying to make sure that all of our neighbors who don't know where their next meal is coming from have a place to access healthy food. We know that there are about 63,000 neighbors in Montgomery County, who are quote, "food insecure." And so we share food. We build skills around nutrition and healthy eating and we also bring the community together and volunteerism is one of the ways we do that.
WILEYSure. We organize visits to people living in hospitals, nursing homes and long-term care facilities. The purpose of our visits is to bring the spirit of the holidays to people that otherwise might not have a celebration.
NNAMDIJackie, people are really excited about giving back over this Holiday Season. Do you see a spike in giving and volunteering at this time of the year?
DECARLOIt's true that because of the-the values of the holidays, people turn their thoughts to service and they wanna give back. And so we definitely see people dropping off more food, signing up for our many volunteer opportunities, and just like the need is spiked, because our neighbors want to set bountiful tables for Thanksgiving or the December holidays, we also see many neighbors wanting to pitch in. And unfortunately sometimes we have to turn them away and remind them that we also will need them in January and February and so on.
NNAMDIJust how swamped with holiday generosity are you?
DECARLOWell, we, right now, every month about 3100 people are -- are turning to us on a monthly basis. And we need 175 regular volunteers to meet that need. And then it becomes supplemented by, you know, law firms and faith groups and others. So we try to put all of their hands into service, but we definitely look forward to their giving all year round.
NNAMDIAlicia, same question to you, is this an especially busy time of year for you?
HORTONIt is and I agree that folks are particularly inspired to provide service during this time of the year. And I also agree that it does lead to a fairly feast-or-famine kind of environment. So we do encourage year-round giving and, but we do see more people giving not only food resources and for us clothing, socks, underwear, those kinds of items are things that we always need, but we get a lot of it this time of year. And then we have to make it last 'cause it -- the donations do drop off in January.
NNAMDIAre you inundated? How difficult is it for people to get a spot to volunteer at Thrive DC?
HORTONWe are booked up a couple months in advance actually.
NNAMDIDo you have strategies for how to redirect people, who are not able to sign up to volunteer this time of the year?
HORTONAbsolutely. We have a list of other organizations, who might need some additional help and we will redirect people there or ask people to maybe think about us in some of the lesser -- less popular times of the year.
NNAMDIEspecially, it's my understanding that this stuff kind of dries up in January.
HORTONAbsolutely. Absolutely. So in January we will not have quite the numbers of volunteers, but, you know, we're really very lucky. We have over 2000 volunteers that come through our doors every year, so we are a stop for many people. All over the world people come to visit with us and do service work so we feel lucky in that way. But, you know, the need is great so there's always something to do.
NNAMDIRobin Wiley, a related issue, is it difficult for organizations to manage all those volunteers and donations coming in at this time of the year?
WILEYWell, the Holiday Season is the focus of our activities. So it's always -- managing the large number of volunteers we see during the holiday months is always a challenge. But we do try to keep our activities going throughout the year. We have other holidays that we do visits on. For example, on Valentine's day we partner with local school children. They make homemade valentines and then we deliver those into the nursing homes.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Robin Wiley. She's President of the Holiday Project of the National Capital Region. Alicia Horton is the Executive Director of Thrive DC and Jackie DeCarlo is the CEO of Manna Food Center in Montgomery County. We're talking about where to volunteer, what to donate. Jackie, there's a spike in people wanting to help, but, you know, there's also a corresponding spike in need. What do you mean by that?
DECARLOWell, because these are holidays that focus on food the families, who turn to us throughout the year, they actually usually only come to us about four or five times a year. Most of the 40,000 of -- I'm sorry, 40 percent of those who turn to us are the working poor. So the holidays come, they have gift giving to pay for, utilities are starting to go up and they wanna makes sure that their families can have an abundant Thanksgiving, for instance, so our numbers go up.
DECARLOLuckily when we have food drives, as I was saying before people are very generous. So of the 3 million pounds of food that we receive annually, a million comes in during October, November and December, and that all has to be sorted and shared out. And so we're able to meet the need of those who turn to us. We couldn't do it without volunteers, but it is -- it ratchets up what we're doing.
NNAMDIWhy do you have more people coming in for your service at this time of year?
DECARLOWell, because of as they're trying to set bountiful tables for their friends and family, I mean, these are neighbors. They wanna have an abundant Christmas dinner or Kwanzaa celebration or Hanukah. And so -- but they're also paying for gifts or they're also paying for rising utility bills. So times are tighter and we help meet the gap of that -- those financial resources.
NNAMDIThere's a pretty wide spread of people that you're providing help to during the holidays and at other times of the year. Can you give us a sense of who is hungry in Montgomery County?
DECARLOYeah, you know, I know that many people think of Montgomery County as an affluent community and we definitely have a rich diversity of economic levels, just like we have of peoples. And we have 25 percent -- like much of the nation -- 25 percent of the folks we serve are seniors, because we have an aging population in Montgomery County. We have a lot of new Americans, people who are just coming here and they're trying to find their way.
DECARLOBut as I mentioned before, 40 percent of the people, who turn to us are working poor. So these are people who have jobs. They're trying to provide for themselves, but the cost of living is such that they just can't make ends meet. And what we're trying to do is prevent them from having to turn to groups like Alicia's, because they find themselves homeless, so we're trying to prevent homelessness or when people are transitioning to permanent housing, we're trying to stabilize their lives.
NNAMDIIs there -- are there ways -- same question I asked to Alicia, are there ways that you can spread out the wealth throughout the season and the year?
DECARLOYeah, so we have regular opportunities on a daily basis, monthly basis. But for instance, coming up, Dr. King's weekend, that is a great service weekend and we'll be holding a food drive. And so we'll need volunteers to go to more than a dozen Giant food stores around Montgomery County and help us solicit food donations. So that's one thing that's coming up but we -- you can go to our website MannaFood.org and find your way through our volunteer kind of decision tree.
DECARLOSo if you're an individual, you click a certain place and we help you schedule. Or if you're a faith group or a corporate group, you click there. So if you're a school group we try to match you and then we can plan and that helps us plan and it helps you plan, especially as you're doing New Year's resolutions about being more service oriented.
NNAMDIRobin, you're a volunteer in the Holiday Project is an all-volunteer group. Why do you think people are motivated to volunteer particularly at this time of year?
WILEYI think people want to get in touch with the spirit of giving and get in touch with something better than themselves. And, again, what we say at the Holiday Project is that we bring the spirit of the holiday to those who otherwise might not have a celebration. And we think of our volunteers as sharing a very special gift with the nursing home residents that they're visiting with, and that's the gift of themselves. We're kind of like a little drummer boy charity and had no other gift to give so he gave himself.
NNAMDIIt's easy to say that people should do a better job of giving their time and energy to causes throughout the year, but the Holiday Project is the Holiday Project for a reason. Do you think there's greater need during this season?
WILEYI do think there's greater need, definitely. I think there's a need that works both ways. A greater need on behalf of the individuals, who are doing the giving and also a greater need on behalf of the populations that we service and I don't know if the others would agree with me on that or not but...
HORTONI agree. Robin, we find that our clients have particular lows during this season of otherwise high-spirited giving and service. But it's a difficult time, particularly when you're in a situation and, you know, dire circumstances and very unfortunate circumstances that can really play on your emotional and mental health.
DECARLOAnd I think that to your point that people want to give back, they're -- we're more conscious as we're buying gifts and those of us who have the ability and privilege to do that, we want to say, hey, let me pay it forward. Or we wanna be good role models to our -- our children our nieces and nephews. We get a lot of families, who volunteer during the season, because they want to show their kids that not everybody has what they have and that they have a role to play in making sure that everyone has enough to eat.
WILEYRight. We get a lot of family volunteers as well and one of the nice things about the Holiday Project is it's a volunteer effort that you can do with your families.
NNAMDIHere is Wendy in Washington. Wendy, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
WENDYHi, Kojo. Thank you. This is a great show. I love this, especially, regarding volunteering. I wanted to make a suggestion regarding volunteering during other times of the year. I was thinking that maybe people could volunteer on their birthdays or in memory of their late grandmother or grandfather or their parents, who have died or passed away. I know my cousin -- I had a little cousin, who was 15 years old. He was celebrating his birthday and we took the cake and all his presents down to the homeless shelter for -- with the kids there. And we volunteered to celebrate his birthday with them. So I was thinking there are other times of the year that people might want to consider volunteering instead of just around Christmas and Thanksgiving.
NNAMDIAll excellent ideas. Thank you very much for calling. We're about to take a short break, but if you work at a local service organization, are you inundated with volunteers and donations during the holidays? We got a Tweet from C. Harrington who says, love being a volunteer at Thrive DC. Thrive staff and clients are so welcome. So there, Alicia.
HORTONThank you. (laugh)
NNAMDIWe're gonna take a short break. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about volunteering, where to volunteer, what to donate. It goes up at this time of year. We're talking with Robin Wiley, president of the Holiday Project of the National Capital Region. Alicia Horton is the executive director of Thrive DC and Jackie DeCarlo is the CEO of Manna Food Center in Montgomery County. Robin Wiley, you have said that Thanksgiving is the easiest time for you to get volunteers. Why is that?
WILEYI think everybody -- and we were just talking about this in -- in the lobby, everybody has this idea that, you know, their plans get changed at the last minute and this is the year that they're gonna go out and feed the homeless for Thanksgiving. And they find out that those groups are long reserved years-oftentimes up to a year in advance by church groups or other civic groups and then they have nothing to do. So that's when they turn to other organizations. They come to me at the nursing homes and, you know, and we have no problem at all getting volunteers on Thanksgiving.
WILEYBut Christmas is a big more of a challenge and many of our visits with the Holiday Project are on Christmas Day. So if you're looking to volunteer on Christmas Day, please visit our website at www.holidayproject.info.
NNAMDIWhat originally motivated you to give your time to the Holiday Project? Tell us that story.
WILEYWell, I actually suffer from depression and so I was invited by a friend of mine to come on a visit and -- and visit some folks in a nursing home in Arlington, Virginia, which is near where I live. And I -- I found that I was in better spirits after I did the visit, that I felt that I had given of myself to others and, you know, that I was really paying it forward so to speak. And so that got me involved and I've been involved with the organization for about 20 years now.
NNAMDIHas it had any effect on your mental health?
WILEYYeah, I -- I'm in a much better mood during the Holiday Season.
WILEYI think it puts us in touch with what Christmas really means.
NNAMDIHere's Margie in Silver Spring, Maryland. Margie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MARGIEYes, I have organized a food drive through my church for the past many years and we were wondering if because you probably get a fair amount of food drives during this particular time of the year, would there be another time of the year that we might reschedule our food drive?
NNAMDIAny suggestions along that line, Alicia Horton, Jackie DeCarlo?
HORTONYou can take it, Jackie.
DECARLOWell, Margie, first of all, thank you. We couldn't, uh, do the work we do without groups like yours organizing food drives. But, yes, we would love to have a food drive happen in the summertime when our -- our stocks are very low. Thing -- we actually -- the food that we get in the holidays usually last us through February, and so in March is when we really start beating the drum for more food drives. So spring or summer would be wonderful and my team looks forward to -- to working with you in Silver Spring. And I'll let you know we're actually gonna be expanding and have a new location in Silver Spring in May. And so hopefully we can work together closer to your neighborhood.
NNAMDIMargie, thank you very much for your call. On now to Mohammad in Washington, DC. Mohammad, your turn.
MOHAMMADYes, hi. The same situation. We do food drive. We -- all year round actually. We cook once a week and we feed the neighborhood. My question is, we're in a little bit -- in a little neighborhood that is always in need. And I was wondering if we can join with one of the organizations to come to our location and give out some of the donations that they receive or collect some of the donations that comes into the mosque. We have a lot of clothes and food drop-off and we do give it out, but a lot of it we give out to the Salvation Army also. So if there's any organization that is willing to come and join forces with us...
NNAMDI...to partner with you. Alicia Horton, how would that work?
HORTONWell, we have not ever done a mobile partnership of that sort only because we're located in Columbia Heights. And the -- unfortunately the need in Columbia Heights is fairly high so we have not had the ability, the capacity to really move outside of the neighborhood. But we always are looking for donations of particular clothing items like socks and not -- unused underwear. So if anybody finds that they have a surplus of those items, we would love to -- to accept them.
HORTONAnd as for food, we work very closely with Capital Area Food Bank and we encourage people to give their food donations to them, because they're able to sort and -- and deal with it in a way that we, again, don't have the capacity to do, and then we can get it from there.
NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much and good luck to you, Mohammad. On to Santa Ed in Silver Spring, Maryland. Santa Ed, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SANTA EDThis is Santa Ed. I am a professional Santa and I recently quit advertising for jobs. I still take them, but I'm really now looking for -- if they can help me get maybe three or four families that would never have a Christmas and have a Santa surprisingly show up, tell stories, do a little magic, give out lots of stuff and make them real -- make believers and make a wonderful Christmas for the family.
NNAMDIJackie DeCarlo, Robin Wiley, where would Santa Ed go looking for that?
WILEYSanta Ed, I believe you volunteered with us before with the Holiday Project with Roger Thiel at the Washington Hospital Center. And if you get...
EDGet some families that have several kids. I want them to be able to understand my stories.
WILEYRight. If you give me a call, you can call me on our line at 703-370-0370, I'd be happy to help you with that.
NNAMDIAnd thank you very much, Santa Ed, and good luck to you. Jackie, do you see any generational trends in volunteering at Manna, young people or older people who are especially devoted to giving back?
DECARLOWe have a lot of folks, who come to us in retirement and we really appreciate it, because they sign up as regular members of our warehouse team. There's a group of ladies that -- Karen, Nancy and Wendy, who call themselves the pink ladies, because they always wear the same matching pink T-shirt. And so in retirement it's not really a retirement for folks like them. They -- they wanna keep giving back and doing meaningful work. So definitely we see retired folks come to us, that generation, but then we get a lot of children, particularly through the Scouts. And I was a Girl Scout, so I know that is a long tradition of service so it may not be a generational shift, but we really love it to help out with, again, our food drives.
DECARLOBut also what I never did when I was a Scout, it was the -- these young boys and girls take projects and then they make a video for Manna or, you know, they try to help us with our website or other things like that. And so it's great to have young people involved as well.
NNAMDIAlicia, Thrive is one of a handful of places that allows kids, even elementary schoolers, to come in and volunteer. What do you think that they learn while they're helping out?
HORTONWell, you know, I find that there are parents that really feel like it's an important learning opportunity for young people to interact with folks who are different from themselves and may be very different from the kind of people they see on a daily basis. So we have Danny Elementary, for instance, comes regularly to volunteer with us. And it's something to see these young people interacting with our clients. And it's also cathartic for our clients to interact with these young kids. And we do see a change and people are different when they leave us after having these experiences.
NNAMDIThere's something else, Jackie, that starts happening or appearing in schools, churches and offices this time of year, those big food donation drive boxes.
NNAMDIHow much of the food that you give out is donated in that way?
DECARLOWell, about 40 percent -- I'm sorry, close to 20 percent of the food received all year long is through our food drives. So, for instance, back to your generational question, there's a drive called Kids Helping Kids. And we have 81 schools in the Montgomery County Public School system and private schools then. And they raised 50,000 pounds worth of food for us. Yom Kippur is a traditional start to the giving season and we had two dozen congregations donate to us almost 30,000 pounds. So all of that helps us with our inventory. And as I say, it's close to 20 percent of the 3 million or so pounds of food we distribute.
NNAMDIWhat are the best things to donate to a food drive? Do you ever run low on particular items?
DECARLOWe definitely run low on items that relate to helping young moms. So we need formula, baby food, infant formula. We also are really trying to make sure that we can address diet-related diseases. We believe that food is medicine and so we need whole grain pasta, we need vegetables that have low sodium or no salt. We need canned proteins or what you and I think of as canned tuna, canned chicken, salmon. Those are items that we really like to be able to share with the community.
NNAMDIAre there dos and don'ts for donating food? What if the food is past it's expiration date?
DECARLOThank you for asking that. Yeah, so actually most foods don't expire. Prescriptions expire. Baby formula does expire, but that best by date or sell by date is just a marker that the retailer has put on to let customers know that that's the peak freshness. But we can still use and we do use any product that -- there's a much longer shelf life and we train our volunteers to sort through the food based on those shelf-life conditions. So you can go to our website MannaFood.org. We have that list. We have actually a pamphlet that's available in six languages and it's called Food Safety at Home. And it helps you not waste food in your own pantry, because sometimes we toss out food that we think is no good to eat and actually it's still very healthful and tasty.
NNAMDIAlicia, you also spearhead donation drives at Thrive DC for clothing, hygiene products and more. What kinds of items are you looking for and why?
HORTONYeah, I've mentioned a couple of times and (laugh) I'm trying to plug it. (laugh) Underwear and socks are items that I cannot keep in house. Because we offer showers at Thrive D.C., people are often looking for an opportunity to change out items that they may have had on for several days. So those are two commodities that we are always in need of.
HORTONBut, Kojo, I also wanted to share that, you know, people can come and volunteer at Thrive for any -- in any number of ways. We have a woman who comes on Wednesday mornings and does meditation and yoga. We have another young lady, who used to come in and do Zumba with our evening program, which is just for women and children. We -- if you have a talent that you wanna share, let us know and I think we can find a way to incorporate it into our program.
NNAMDIFor each of you, starting with you Robin Wiley, how can listeners get involved with or give to your organizations? What opportunities are there for that?
WILEYSure. Like I said, we're in the middle of our Holiday Season right now. It's our busiest time of year. If you're interested in joining with us in a visit to a hospital, nursing home or long term care facility, please log onto our website at www.holidayproject.info.
NNAMDIAnd you, Alicia Horton?
HORTONAbsolutely. You can join us at -- log onto www.thrivedc.org and we have a whole orientation schedule and you can jump right in and join us in our work.
NNAMDIAnd you, Jackie DeCarlo.
DECARLOWe appreciate all year long food, funds and friends and you can figure out how to best give that meets you and your interest and needs at our website. And also you can follow us on social media. We're on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
NNAMDICharles emails, Don't forget the animal organizations. Many rescue groups and shelters are desperate for volunteers to foster dogs and help with other organizational activities. And DAM emails, I help sell Christmas trees as a fundraiser for an organization at my church that supports our Boy Scout troop. I always enjoy volunteering, but it's hard to get motivated to go out in the cold wet, and it's hard to get help.
NNAMDIWell, I do understand that, DAM, but you're doing very good work and thank you for doing that. And I hope you can continue. I'm afraid we're just about out of time. Robin Wiley is the President of the Holiday Project of the National Capital Region. Robin Wiley, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIJackie DeCarlo is the CEO of Manna Food Center in Montgomery County. Jackie DeCarlo, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIAnd Alicia Horton is the Executive Director of Thrive DC. Alicia, thank you for joining us.
HORTONThank you for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDIThat's it for today's show. Today's show on volunteering during the holidays was produced by Margaret Barthel. Our show on the Prince George's County police lawsuit was produced by Julie Depenbrock. Coming up tomorrow, a new book of short stories explores the lives of black women in DC. We'll speak with local author Camille Acker about her debut collections. It's called "Training School For Negro Girls." Plus we dig into Montgomery County's plan to make the area more bike friendly. That all starts tomorrow at noon. Until then, thank you for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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