CHAMPAIGN – The United Way of Champaign County hopes residents who are able to give back to the community will consider doing so this holiday season.
The organization has compiled a list of local holiday giving opportunities. They include adopt-a-family programs that pair people with families who have specific needs, as well as collection drives — for food, toys, winter coats and more — and both virtual and in-person volunteer opportunities with organizations meeting a variety of needs.
The COVID-19 pandemic has created hardship for so many people that it’s hard to identify which needs are the greatest in the community, says Bev Baker, Director of Community Impact with the United Way of Champaign County.
“We live in a generous community,” Baker says. “We live in a resource-rich community. But there are always needs.”
Many parents are home with kids, having difficulties with virtual school and struggling to find childcare so they can get back to work, Baker says. Food insecurity is a persistent problem, which has gotten worse with the pandemic.
For those who want to give back to the community but don’t know where to start, Baker encourages people to look within their own networks and at their neighborhoods “to recognize needs that might be right there in front of you.”
Consider reaching out to friends, neighbors and others who may be struggling with loneliness or isolation leading up to the holidays. And recognize that small acts of kindness can go a long way.
For example, a card or phone call for a home-bound senior — or an offer to make a grocery run for them or have a socially distanced porch visit — can be meaningful during a time when many are isolated, Baker says.
With winter weather rolling in, there’s also an increased need for donations of winter clothes, coats, hats, gloves and other cold weather items.
“There are a number of organizations that are collecting those items right now and will get them to individuals that need them,” Baker says.
For those open to in-person volunteering, there are several programs that need help, including food pantries, soup kitchens and programs that deliver meals to seniors, which lost many volunteers when college students left the area last month. These kinds of organizations have all changed the way they operate to implement COVID-19 safety precautions, she says.
Around the holidays, Baker says there’s a lot of interest in toy drives — like Toys for Tots, which collects new unwrapped toys to deliver to local underprivileged children. Many local organizations — including those that provide services to people with disabilities and the homeless — have compiled holiday wish lists for the individuals they serve.
The United Way also gets lots of people asking how they can adopt or sponsor a family, to meet their specific needs in a tangible way, Baker says.
“What we encourage, and what we have listed on our website, is a number of our partners that make that available,” she says. “And it’s that opportunity for you… to do a little bit of research on each of those organizations as well — their mission, who do they serve — and maybe find the one that really tugs at your heart strings or means the most to you.”
The most valuable thing people can give is their time, Baker says.
Plenty of local volunteer opportunities can start now and extend well beyond the holiday season, including mentorship programs like Big Brothers Big Sisters. The United Way website says mentors for children are needed right now more than ever.
Find the full list of local holiday giving opportunities on the United Way of Champaign County’s website.
Christine Herman is a reporter with Illinois Newsroom. Follow her on Twitter: @CTHerman