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Holiday Volunteering: How To Give Back During A Pandemic


In a typical November, the holiday spirit sets in. People start to think about being with family and community, and about ways that they can give back.  


But, this isn’t a typical year. With the ongoing pandemic, including a recent spike in new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, donating to charities and volunteering may be harder than ever. 


At the same time, the need for help has never been greater. 

Kyle Rahn is the president and CEO of United Way of Southern Nevada. She told KNPR's State of Nevada that since the pandemic started they have seen a drop in some of their regular donors, but they are still getting money from other sources.

“The average person is giving $10, $20, $30,” Rahn said. "We don’t have the traditional funding sources always, but it’s also a time to be challenged, to be nimble and adapt and look at things differently."

She said many corporate sponsors have shifted to donating to COVID recovery efforts.

United Way of Southern Nevada has been able to raise $2.4 million for the Emergency Assistance and Community Needs Fund it established in the beginning weeks of the pandemic. 

That money has been distributed to 34 different non-profits around the valley that partner with United Way. The money is for immediate basic needs like food, rent, mortgage, utilities and emergency housing.

Rahn said many of United Way's partners have money available to distribute, and anyone who needs assistance with basic needs should go to the organizations' website to see what is available or they can call the state's social services hotline at 211.

At least one positive change to come out of the pandemic has been a shift to better coordination between non-profits. Rahn said at the beginning of the pandemic United Way gathered as many non-profits from around the Las Vegas valley as possible to meet weekly to coordinate and collaborate on meeting the needs of the community. 

That has led to a number of partnerships that may not have sprung up as quickly if the need hadn't been so pressing.

“It’s been exceptionally helpful and it has also been a community of strength. We’re all in this together,” she said.

One of the charities that the United Way partners with is Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada

Natasha Nelson is the volunteer and outreach manager for Catholic Charities. She said since the pandemic the charity has made several changes to how it operates and the jobs it gives to volunteers.

Nelson said before the coronavirus the charity had upwards of 60 volunteers on its campus daily to prepare and serve meals to clients. Those volunteers had to be moved to other tasks.

Now, those volunteers are doing everything from sewing masks and hats for clients to creating hygiene kits for people staying in the men's homeless shelter.

Hygiene kits for the Catholic Charities Homeless Shelter/Credit: Catholic Charities

"We do see less engagement overall, but I think it is really important to note the engagement just looks very different, and it doesn’t mean that it's less impactful,” she said. 

The biggest change for this year will be during next week's Thanksgiving holiday. Catholic Charities will not have volunteers preparing and serving meals to people in need on Thanksgiving.

“Of course, Thanksgiving is one of the biggest volunteer days of the year," Nelson said. "And it will be a shift this year not having volunteers on campus that day, but I really do think people are very understanding that they can make an impact from home.” 

Nelson said the people she has talked to about the shift have simply asked what else they can do to help. 

Instead of meeting with Meals on Wheels clients directly, volunteers are writing cards and putting them with the meals that are delivered/Credit: Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada

For those people looking to help, Laura Plato, the chief solutions officer for the national organization VolunteerMatch, said there are lots of innovative ways.

From volunteering to do office work for non-profits to teaching dance classes over Zoom, charities have hundreds of opportunities. In Nevada alone, Plato's organization says there are more than 9,000 volunteer positions open right now.

"I think one thing we've seen through this pandemic is just how very fragile the tissue of our communities really is," she said, "But what we're also seeing is incredible creativity and innovation on the part of our non-profit partners, and incredible passion and compassion on the part of our volunteers."

She said people are finding ways to give back to the community in a different way, and non-profits are finding ways to work across sectors to help people in need.

Plato suggests those looking to volunteer should find a non-profit they're interested in and contact them about what they can do to help.

Rahn said the United Way has a created a volunteer match website of its own with 94 different local charities. The non-profits have all kinds of different ways to pitch in, both virtually and through in-person help.


From Desert Companion: Give: Charitable Opportunities

Natasha Nelson, Volunteer and Outreach Manager for Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada; Laura Plato, Chief Solutions Officer, VolunteerMatch; Kyle Rahn, President and CEO, United Way of Southern Nevada

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Desert Companion welcomed Heidi Kyser as staff writer in January 2014. In 2018, she was promoted to senior writer and producer, working for both DC and State of Nevada. She produced KNPR’s first podcast, the Edward R. Murrow Regional Award-winning Native Nevada, in 2020. The following year, she returned her focus full-time to Desert Companion, becoming Deputy Editor, which meant she was next in line to take over when longtime editor Andrew Kiraly left in July 2022.