Volunteering on a Budget

Updated on April 23, 2018
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Drea is a Cancer Biology PhD Candidate whose outside interests are grounded in her desire to help her community and spread positivity.

One of the greatest joys in my life is giving back to those in my community. I live in one of the poorest cities in the country, in an area with a lot of vitriol and mistrust of government because of the current rhetoric of immigration reform. It is challenging, but very rewarding to make where I live a little better. With my small graduate student stipend, I unfortunately don't have the means to simply help others pay to be better off, but I do have my time to donate. Below are some ideas of how you can help in your community if you are on a budget.

1. Volunteer at a food bank

No matter where you live, there are likely underfed and hungry children, working adults and homeless adults.

  • During the school year, most children who are hungry fortunately have the opportunity to eat at school. Unfortunately, in the summer, some children do not have access to food throughout the day. During this time the food banks are desperate for volunteers who can help box the food they get donated. Without volunteers to box food, food cannot be distributed. Some food banks prefer to have permanent volunteers that choose a schedule and come in say every Tuesday and Thursday from 8am to noon. If you have a lot of available time like that, excellent. If you are more limited in time, call the food bank and ask if you can be put on a list as a back-up boxer, or perhaps your food bank will take temporary volunteers. The best part about the food bank is anybody can do it. They typically provide you with a list of what an average food box should be like-- canned vegetables, meat, grains, etc. and you just box it up, like you're making any other care package.
  • Boxes of easy to prepare and canned meals are great for children and working adults who have kitchens to prepare meals in. These types of families also often are able to supplement their food box donations with fresh food and can make healthy, hot meals at home. Unfortunately, for the homeless, a box of food from a food bank may effectively be worthless. These individuals are more likely to seek food banks that offer hot, pre-prepared meals. In my community, there is an excellent incarceration-to-cooking pipeline where struggling former convicts can take cooking lessons, prepare meals for the homeless and eventually earn a cooking degree. It has helped many individuals keep their lives on track and many community members fed with wholesome, nutritious food. If you have training in cooking and time to donate to community members, looking for these types of programs to volunteer your time at is a wonderful way to give back using the skills you already own. You can host a special seminar to teach an unlearned skill or a new recipe that will help the cooks pass their culinary exams. A little bit goes a long way.

2. Tutor or mentor local children

Being in a position of privilege now, I always like to help younger people like many adults helped me.

  • In my community, my local Big Brothers Big Sisters program started a Mentor 2.0 program for at-risk high schoolers. The goal is for the teenagers to be matched with college-educated adults who are working in fields the teens are interested in. I joined a program like this. The high schooler I matched with hopes to be a pharmacist one day. She is very bright and determined, but she is at risk to not make her goal because of her parents' immigration status and her unfamiliarity with higher education. Through the program we have weekly message board discussions where I help her learn important skills like time management and advocating for herself. Once a month I meet her at her high school and we get to spend time together to strengthen our relationship and build on the skills I am teaching her online. The time commitment is only about 1 hour per week, but I have seen tremendous growth from when her school year started.
  • Another great idea is offering free tutoring. This could be to help local children who can't afford private tutors, or in my community adults are desperate to learn English for free. A simple call or coffee meet up can go a long way in helping someone gain confidence in their speech and learn to speak conversationally as we do rather than grammatically like many who are self-taught have to.

3. Do chores for the elderly

This year I decided to live alone for the first time. I fortunately found a great neighborhood, a little ways away from most of the undergraduate students. From living there and exploring the neighborhood from walking my dog, I realized most of my neighbors are elderly. In my building it is me in one unit, an elderly woman next door and an elderly man beside her. We all share the yard space and I have gotten to know them quite well. Whenever we can assist each other, we do. Typically I'm asked to get something high up where I'd have to climb on something or move something heavy or other simple tasks that could be burdensome to someone with failing health. It makes me happy to have a close relationship with my neighbors because I don't have any family in my city. It feels more like a community now.

  • I recently saw a listing on my community billboard that a child posted he would clean dog poop from yards for $5/day. I thought it was just silly at first, but realized, the child likely lives next to elderly neighbors too, who may have trouble bending over to clean. Posting an ad that you will do tasks like cleaning for free (or a nominal fee if you have expenses) is a great way to give back that is otherwise costless.
  • If you have a car, driving neighbors to appointments is also a great way to give back. Some people can no longer drive or may have to undergo a procedure where they shouldn't drive. Knowing they have someone who will make sure they get home safely does wonders to reduce stress and anxiety that could complicate appointments.

4. Clean Up Your Neighborhood

In my neighborhood, we have many walking trails, but very few trash cans, which unfortunately means a lot of items get littered. Whenever I have an open Saturday morning I like to walk my dog around and pick up trash. I recommend wearing gloves and only picking up items with your hands that are not sharp. Also, bring a large trash bag (not a grocery store bag). Other than the cost of trash bags and gloves, items I always have on hand at home anyway, this is a very affordable way to make a big difference to not only the environment but also in the look of your home and surrounding community.

If you can afford to spend some money or can get donated items, a group of my friends likes to go around and paint over graffiti in their neighborhoods. Depending on where you live, one can of white or brown paint can cover a lot of ground.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.


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    • Bills Place profile image

      Billy Haynes 

      2 years ago from Paragould, AR

      In the past I've volunteered at a local animal shelter, and I remember mom and I doing volunteer work at a local state park (raking, picking up limbs, etc.)


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