There's a lot to gain by giving in Howard County.
Each year, residents from across the county volunteer their time, doing everything from helping young readers pick out library books and driving seniors to doctors appointments to stocking shelves at the food bank and caring for rescued horses.
"There's great interest in volunteering in our community," says Michael-Anne "Mickey" Gomez, executive director of The Volunteer Center Serving Howard County, a Columbia Association program that connects volunteers with more than 200 local nonprofit and government agencies.
Many residents who contact the Volunteer Center or use its website (volunteerhoward.org) to search for opportunities do so because they want to give something back to their home community, Gomez says. But often, volunteers are surprised at how just how much they gain throughout the volunteer experience.
"They gain a much better understanding of our community," Gomez says. "They can meet new people, they can learn new skills, and they can really feel more connected."
Volunteering is both "an investment in your community and an investment in yourself," she says.
If you're ready to invest, here are 10 easy ways to give back in Howard County.
1 Donate Food
The Community Action Council (CAC) of Howard County, which provides services and programs to low-income residents, needs food for its food bank. According to Maryland Hunger Solutions, more than 20,300 people are "food insecure" every day in Howard County, meaning they are at risk of hunger and lack consistent access to adequate food. Volunteers can drop off nonperishable items at the food bank's headquarters. Or they can hold their own food drives in their communities or workplaces. The food bank also supplies food to several partner pantries throughout Howard County.
Where: Howard County Food Bank, 8920 Route 108, Suite A, Columbia
When: Donations accepted Monday through Friday between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m.
Contact: Ashley Groves, 410-313-6440, cac-hc.org
2 Help Cancer Patients
The Ulman Cancer Fund for Young Adults, which provides support, education and resources for young adults affected by cancer, needs volunteers for its "Helping Others Fight" program. Individuals and groups help local cancer patients and their families with yard work, housecleaning, home repairs, pet care, meal assistance and transportation to treatment. Volunteers must complete an application and agree to a background check.
Where: Locations throughout Howard County, as well as Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties.
When: Time varies. Projects typically occur at least twice a month.
Contact: Laura Scruggs, 410-964-0202, firstname.lastname@example.org, ulmanfund.org
3 Lead a Workout
The Athelas Institute, a community center that provides vocational, educational, residential and recreational programs for adults with intellectual disabilities, needs volunteers to lead exercise and nutrition classes in its new Wellness Center. Volunteers should have a fitness and health background and be confident teaching adults with disabilities. Class times are flexible and can range from one-time to ongoing sessions.
Where: Athelas Institute, 9104 Red Branch Road, Columbia
When: Monday through Friday during the day. Evening slots are also available.
Contact: Pat Owens, 410-964-1241, athelasinstitute.org
4 Walk a Dog
The Animal Welfare Society of Howard County, a nonprofit agency serving people and animals of Howard County, needs volunteers to escort dogs to outside areas and back to their kennels on Friday and Saturday evenings. Volunteers will also clean and prepare kennels. Experience with dogs is required, as are compassion and dependability.
Where: Animal Welfare Society of Howard County, 8556 Davis Road, Columbia
When: Fridays and Saturdays from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m.
Contact: Stephanie Edner at 410-465-4350, awshc.org
5 Ride a Bike
Cycle2Health Howard County, a peer-led bicycling club for adults of all ages and abilities coordinated by the Howard County Office on Aging, needs experienced bicyclists familiar with county trails and roadways to volunteer as ride leaders. "It's a way of sharing your love of riding with others," says Jennifer Lee, health promotions specialist for the Office on Aging. Bike mechanical skills required. Ages 18 and up.
Where: Throughout Howard County
When: Weekdays, April to October
Contact: Jennifer Lee, 410-313-5940, howardcountymd.gov
6 Cheer for Runners
The National Family Resiliency Center, which helps children and adults build healthy relationships during family transitions like divorce, needs course monitors for its annual "5 for Families" 5k race and 1k walk. Monitors will ensure runners are headed in the right direction, as well as cheer for runners as they make their way to the finish line. Additional help is needed for event setup and breakdown.
Where: Around Wilde Lake and Lake Kittamaqundi in Columbia
When: Sept. 28. Set-up 6:30 to 7:30 a.m., monitoring 7:30 to 9 a.m. and breakdown at 11:30 a.m.
Contact: Kathy Helt, 410-740-9553, divorceabc.com
7 Greet a Taxpayer
AARP, a nonprofit membership organization for people over 50, needs greeters for its "Tax Aide" program, which provides free tax preparation and assistance to low- and middle-income taxpayers. The program focuses on taxpayers age 60 and older. Greeters meet taxpayers at local community centers, sign them in, assign them to counselors and occasionally organize papers and assist with intake forms. Volunteers work an average of four hours a week during the 10-week tax season. Half-day training is provided. No tax preparation experience required.
Where: Ellicott City Senior Center, Bain Center in Columbia, North Laurel 50+ Center.
When: Feb. 1 to April 15, 2014, weekdays and some Saturdays and evenings
Contact: Kathy Larson, 410-730-1373
8 Help a Horse
Days End Farm Horse Rescue, a nonprofit animal welfare organization in Woodbine, needs barn volunteers to help staff members clean, water, feed, groom and manage its horses. Volunteers do not need horse-handling experience. Or, for those interested in farm or administrative work, Days End also needs help with construction, woodworking and information technology. Orientation is held twice a month for new volunteers. The farm recommends a three-hour minimum for volunteer shifts. Volunteers age 5 to 12 must volunteer alongside a parent or legal guardian.
Where: Days End Farm Horse Rescue, 1372 Woodbine Road, Woodbine
When: Seven days a week from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Need is greatest on weekdays or during poor and extreme weather.
Contact: Jill Pokorny, 301-854-5037, email@example.com, defhr.org
9 Drive a Senior
Neighbor Ride, a volunteer-based transportation service, needs volunteers to drive seniors to their destinations, including doctors' offices, grocery stores, hair salons and nursing homes. Seniors who use the service either do not drive or have limited driving abilities. Scheduling is done online and is flexible, says Colleen Konstanzer, community outreach coordinator. "You volunteer when it works for you," she says. Volunteers must be 21 years old, able to pass criminal background and driver record checks, have three points or fewer on their driver's license, maintain confidentiality and be interested in seniors.
Where: Locations throughout Howard County
When: Times vary
Contact: Patrice Cerwonka, 410-884-RIDE (7433), neighborride.org
10 Heat a Home
Every year, more than 5,600 low-income Howard County families suffer during cold and hot weather because they cannot afford to heat or cool their homes, says Bita Dayhoff, president of the Community Action Council of Howard County. By making a donation, the council can provide financial assistance to these residents, keeping electricity and heat on during the coldest months.
Where: Online at cac-hc.org or at CAC headquarters, 6751 Columbia Gateway Drive, Columbia
Contact: Ashley Groves, 410-313-6440