How to Volunteer or Donate to Help Others This School Year

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If you have already figured out how your family’s work and school situation might look this fall, remember other families might not be as secure. All parents want to stay or get healthy, give their children the best shot at an enriching school year and support themselves and their partners as they balance work and child-rearing — but this is an unprecedented, uncertain year. Millions of people are facing job loss, food insecurity, health problems and other worries in this ever-changing period.

With the school year here or rapidly approaching, you can offer a helping hand, either through donations or volunteering. Involving the young ones in your life may teach them valuable lessons about giving back, while also giving them feel-good tasks during an inherently destabilizing time.

“What motivates parents to do all the things that raise money is, basically, helping your own kid,” said Pamela Koch, the executive director of the Laurie M. Tisch Center for Food, Education & Policy at Teachers College at Columbia University. “This might be a time that thinking about that in a deeper way could really happen.”

Here are some strategies to help your neighbors, your schools and your community.

As the virus spread and unemployment numbers increased, many people made donations. These gestures helped many organizations get over the immediate hurdles.

But the crisis continues. If you can afford it, a recurring monthly commitment — set up with an automatic withdrawal from your bank account or credit card — gets your family to commit for the long run. Charity Navigator has a list of vetted nonprofits working in communities affected by the outbreak.

Involve your children by asking their opinions on where they think you should focus resources. They can also help raise money by hosting a socially distant bake sale or starting an online fund-raising campaign.

Many food banks and emergency rent-relief organizations are working with reduced budgets, despite increased need. To help with emergency relief, check out national organizations like Feeding America or the Salvation Army, which most likely have chapters in your area. Or if you were passionate about an issue before the pandemic struck, chances are organizations that deal with it still need help.

Where and how you shop also matters. From clothing brands to grocery stores, some retailers donate a portion of their proceeds to those in need. Others match your purchase by donating a similar item or allow organizations to register to receive financial gifts, and you and your kids can choose for your purchases’ proceeds to go to a favorite charity, school or another nonprofit.

Credit cards points can also be donated, along with frequent-flier miles and other loyalty points you have stashed away.

At its most basic level, mutual aid is when neighbors step in to directly fill gaps left by government services and big institutions. Many groups are working to build a local directory to organize opportunities as big as neighborhood fund-raisers or as small as grocery deliveries to an elderly couple down the street. To find a local group, search online — a lot have sprung up on social media or block association email lists. There are also nationwide lists online.

“It’s providing kinship,” said Tyesha Maddox, an assistant professor in the department of African and African-American studies at Fordham University. “It’s more than just charity or generosity. It’s building a cohesive neighborhood.”

Mutual aid has been around for a long time. Dr. Maddox studies the practice in Caribbean communities in New York City at the turn of the century. An episode from “The Dig,” a podcast from Jacobin, tells the story of a Russian dissident who coined the term in 1902 after he saw animals helping each other in Siberia.

With a mutual-aid group, you will be taking cues from the people you’re helping. That might include donating school supplies, or helping a family make rent. Supporting parents is often the best way to support their children.

For school supplies, donate to First Book, a national nonprofitthat provides free or inexpensive books and learning materials to children in need.

Or establish an ongoing connection with another family. One New York organization, the New Neighbors Partnership, pairs refugee families with families who have slightly older kids, so a relationship built on clothing donations can be maintained over several years.

Shoshana Akabas, its founder, said that since the pandemic, she had been adding a new client every other day.

“It’s proven to be a real lifeline for these families, having that local community connection,” said Ms. Akabas, 28. “That’s the goal, ultimately. It’s to not only make sure they have clothes for their kids, but to give them a sense that somebody in this huge city still cares about them.”

Your children might be pleased to know others will appreciate their outgrown clothes. You can work together to wash, sort, fold and pack, and write letters to the other family. They might even make a new friend.

In March, as lockdowns started, nonprofit organizations saw steep drop-offs of volunteer sign-ups. Some organizations temporarily suspended volunteer programs altogether.

A few months in, organizations have developed safe strategies for people to take action digitally.

“The need has almost never been greater in our lifetime for volunteers and funding for our nonprofits,” said Laura Plato, the chief solutions officer for VolunteerMatch, an online platform that connects people to service programs. Right now, there are over one million calls on the site for virtual volunteers, from staffing a crisis prevention line to hosting a digital clothing or food drive.

This time of year also brings desperate need for disaster relief efforts. You could team up with your teenagers to digitally map out vulnerable communities with the American Red Cross.

Or consider organizing a drive on your social media (or your kid’s account, safely) to collect school supplies for organizations like Operation Backpack.

Finally, volunteer as a virtual tutor. Teenagers can help their peers through programs like Teens Give or School on Wheels.

Food banks are strapped, but demand has never been greater.

“While some food banks are in need of food donations, others may be looking for volunteers, and all could use financial gifts to support meal and grocery programs,” said Kathryn Strickland, chief network officer at Feeding America, a national network of 200 food banks and more than 6,000 food pantries. About 80 percent of the Feeding America food banks are still accepting volunteers. You and your kids can assemble or distribute boxes.

For families with outdoor space, you can also grow a garden together and share the bounty with a local food bank. Or if you own a car, you can drive for your local Meals on Wheels affiliate and deliver meals to homebound seniors.

Another option, for New Yorkers specifically, is connected to the city’s promise to provide each family with a child in the public school system with up to $420 per student, most in the form of a “Pandemic-Electronic Benefit Transfer” card.

Many might want to give the card to a neighbor, and while that’s a noble desire, it’s not a legal one. Your family is the only one who can use it.

“It’s very similar to a stimulus check,” said Marissa Finn, an educator and the founder of Share My PEBT, a campaign to educate people about how to donate.

Since failing to use the card will waste those funds, Ms. Finn recommends using the card to shop for groceries and donating $420 to an organization that fights hunger. She has links to several on her website.

Some areas are setting up community refrigerators stocked with produce and other food items. People are welcome to take whatever they want from the fridges and leave behind food they don’t need. It’s a grass-roots effort to combat food insecurity and reduce waste.

Millions of students will be attending class from their living rooms, watching video lectures and socializing at a distance. But remote education can be difficult.

Some 15 percent of U.S. households with school-age children do not have a high-speed internet connection, according to a Pew Research Center analysis. Often, several children share one computer, which can be tough with overlapping class times.

Before the pandemic, a student without internet at home could do research at a library or stay after school to use the computers.

“That’s not an option anymore,” said Angela Siefer, the executive director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, a nonprofit organization that advocates for internet access. “There’s no workaround.”

N.D.I.A. maintains a list of local organizations working on digital inclusion, for those looking to donate. Another organization, EveryoneOn, can help families find low-cost programs in their ZIP code.

You could also donate a computer to a student. Basic models start at around $100. Give through mutual aid orthrough an organization. One idea might be Comp-U-Dopt, which refurbishes used computers and gives them to children in cities across the country. It costs $215 for the organization to get the computer, overhaul it, deliver it and provide two years of tech support and training, said Megan Steckly, the chief executive.

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