Ways to help others from home
A few weeks into the coronavirus quarantine, Laurie Onofrio-Collier, 57, heard about AARP’s new Friendly Voice program, a call center that offers older adults a free, confidential telephone conversation (email@example.com, 1-888-281-0145).
“I told my husband about it, and he said, ‘Calling and chatting with people? That sounds like you,’” Onofrio-Collier said, laughing.
Now, from her sunny patio, Onofrio-Collier spends several hours a day reaching out to people who are frightened or lonely. She listens, asks questions and laughs with them.
Speaking about a recent phone call with an older woman, she said, “We talked about memories, and vacations with kids and travel, and you could just hear how joyful she was and how delighted she was with the conversation.”
Like AARP, which launched its program last month in response to the Covid-19 crisis, many organizations need volunteers, and much of the work can be done from home. There’s a virtual volunteer position for just about everyone, and older adults especially are taking advantage.
Digitize historic documents
The Library of Congress, for example, launched a program in 2018 called By the People to digitize items from its collection so they can be searched online (crowd.loc.gov).
Anyone with a computer and an internet connection can transcribe images of documents such as Abraham Lincoln’s notes, Branch Rickey’s scouting reports, century-old diary entries, and even Rosa Parks’ recipe for peanut butter pancakes.
“Anybody can do it,” said Dr. Victoria Van Hyning, the library’s senior innovation specialist and project manager. “You don’t really need to have a knowledge of, or affinity for, a certain subject.”
Van Hyning noticed an uptick in volunteers since the quarantine began in March, but with 215,000 pages transcribed and 54,000 of those needing a review for accuracy, she said, “There’s still plenty to do.”
Older volunteers are particularly needed. “Being able to read cursive is a huge benefit that people over 50 can bring, since it’s not being taught in school anymore,” she said.
The goal of By the People, Van Hyning said, is not only to make the library’s content easier to find, but to engage Americans with their national heritage. Similar programs, like the Smithsonian Transcription Center (transcription.si.edu), welcome “anyone with a curious spirit,” according to its website. The National Archives Citizen Archivist program (firstname.lastname@example.org) is also open to volunteers willing to transcribe and “tag” an item (label it with descriptive terms) so it’s searchable on Google.
All three programs have an online forum, such as the National Archives’ History Hub, where volunteers “meet” and can ask and answer questions.
In this way, while volunteering from home, “people form relationships and get to know [other] people,” Van Hyning said. “They’re all retirees, for the most part. It’s a great way to engage with people right now, and people are very welcoming.”
Bring books alive
Another way to engage with people is by reading books to students. An audiobook company called Learning Ally (learningally.org) trains volunteers to record textbooks or young-adult novels for students who are blind or dyslexic.
Other volunteers are paired up with narrators to give them one-on-one feedback on each recording’s sound quality, speed or pronunciation. A third tier of volunteers double-checks the final product before the book is distributed to 30,000 children — and hopefully sparks a lifelong love of reading.
“Most of the kids who use our products struggle with reading,” said Paula Restrepo, volunteer nation lead, “so we need to make sure that first book is really engaging.”
Be a couch cartographer
For less one-on-one social interaction, you can also volunteer from your couch by helping cartographers.
If you love maps, you can join the National Map Corps with the U.S. Geological Survey (email@example.com). The agency asks volunteer editors to help update map sites from their home computers).
“Many of our current volunteers are retirees who enjoy being able to contribute to a citizen-science project without leaving the house, so this is an ideal stay-at-home/social distancing opportunity,” project manager Emily Anderson said.
After creating an account and reading a brief how-to guide, Map Corps volunteers can get to work right away. Add new points to a map or make sure that existing points correctly identify schools, hospitals and other structures. If you get stuck, there’s a Q&A forum where people can ask questions or answer them for newbies.
Be an outdoor citizen scientist
There are also volunteer options for nature lovers. If you spend your time fishing, some states, such as Maryland, need anglers to report basic information on the size, species and location of their catch. They can send data with a smartphone.
Amateur wildlife photographers can upload photos to the iNaturalist app or website, contributing them to a database for biologists.
Birdwatchers can report sightings via iBird — an online checklist organized by the National Audubon Society and the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology.
You can help save lives by reporting floods, hail or tornadoes with a quick phone call or email. The National Weather Service is always on the lookout for “weather weenies,” as agency meteorologist Jeremy Geiger put it.
Geiger trains people officially called “spotters” to report storms via a program called Skywarn (weather.gov/skywarn). The two-hour training sessions are entirely online now, and no experience is necessary. “Average Joes to geniuses” are welcome, he said.
The on-the-ground weather reports from their 400,000 trained severe weather spotters are crucial, Geiger said, enabling the agency to issue a warning and save lives.
“With a radar, you can only see so much,” he said. Retirees are particularly helpful. “People who are retired have a little more time,” he said.
Help get the groceries out
With the current stay-at-home orders, getting necessities like groceries to those who need them has become an even more important, yet arduous, task. At Capitol Hill Village, a D.C. nonprofit that helps older adults in that neighborhood age in place, volunteers can help older residents by placing grocery delivery orders for them (firstname.lastname@example.org).
“We’re having volunteers from home either help by asking for a shopping list and getting food delivered, or teaching them the [online ordering] technology themselves,” according to Katie Garber, director of volunteer and care services. “That doesn’t require face-to-face contact.”
Food banks are facing unprecedented demand today. While most need volunteers to work in-person at their headquarters, some organizations, such as the African Community Center DC Metro, use volunteers to make “contact-free” deliveries of computers or food directly to doorsteps. Volunteers can also help research or write grants, according to Yariana Rodriguez, the group’s resource development manager (acc-dc.org).
Life experience is an asset
Above all, it’s important that we take care of one another during these difficult times. You can help with that by staffing a Montgomery County hotline.
Crisis Prevention and Intervention Services at the Rockville-based mental health nonprofit EveryMind is seeking volunteers to answer phone calls or texts from people who are abused, lonely or “just having a bad day,” according to Rachel Larkin, director of the program (every-mind.org).
“There are a lot of folks out there who would like to hear a kind voice and be helped out,” she said.
Since the pandemic began in March, Larkin said, “We moved our whole [eight-week] training [online], and we are taking all our calls remotely. New trainees can do chats remotely, too.”
Older adults make excellent hotline operators, she added. “We love our 50-plus volunteers because they have so much life experience.”
You can also use your job experience to coach students or give career advice on a website called CareerVillage. “We’re looking for professionals in all sorts of fields,” said Gurpreet Lally, community manager for CareerVillage.org. “Students will post questions about anything from welding to medical fields. It’s a huge range.”
No training is necessary, just a LinkedIn account or an email address. “It’s a very quick and easy process,” she said. “Anyone can just hop in whenever they have time, spend 20 minutes or so answering questions, and then hop off.”
If you’d like to help out RVA residents, consider becoming a TeleBridges volunteer with Senior Connections. Once you register, you’ll be matched with a volunteer to learn how to provide telephone reassurance to older adults. Contact email@example.com.
Feed More [see our cover story this month] needs volunteers to make friendly greeting cards for food recipients, anything “to bring a smile to their faces,” according to its website, feedmore.org. Wear a face mask and gloves and help Feed More’s Meals on Wheels program deliver thousands of meals each day throughout the metro area. (feedmore.org)
You also can help Richmond Metropolitan Habitat for Humanity by sewing
cloth face masks for volunteers or making recipe books for future homeowners. (richmondhabitat.org)
Volunteering in Baltimore and HoCo
If you’d like to make a difference to people in the local area, Meals on Wheels of Central Maryland needs volunteers e to check in on clients by phone twice a week to help stave off loneliness and isolation. To sign up to make these “wellness calls,” email firstname.lastname@example.org.
A similar volunteer effort, the Home Team Program, a countywide program of the Baltimore County Department of Aging, is looking for people to check in with its clients.
Normally, volunteers visit older people who are confined to their homes, unable to drive or simply living alone. Due to the pandemic, they are making phone calls instead. To sign up to make calls to older adults, call (410) 887-4141 or email email@example.com.
Remember pen pals? The nonprofit Winter Growth, Inc., founded in 1979 to provide community-based services for older and disabled adults, would like to connect you to a Howard County pen pal during the pandemic.
Write a note about a favorite vacation, share a silly story, explain what life was like growing up in your neighborhood or discuss anything else you’d like to share. Notes can be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Or, if you play an instrument, share your musical talents and brighten someone’s day by sending Winter Growth an audio or video recording of your performance. These can be sent to email@example.com.
You can even find an opportunity on your own street. With the current stay-at-home orders, getting necessities like groceries to those who need them has become a more important, yet still arduous, task. Consider helping an older neighbor by ordering groceries for them or teaching them how to do so.
To Onofrio-Collier, a virtual volunteer position is a rewarding way to fill up the days. In fact, you can get carried away. Recently, a friend asked her what TV shows she was “binge-watching” during the quarantine.
“I said, ‘What? Sorry, I don’t have any time for that,’” Onofrio-Collier said. “I’m busier now than when I was working.”
To search for more volunteer opportunities you can do from home, visit createthegood.aarp.org.