Volunteering: The perfect holiday gift to the community

Friday, November 11, 2016, Vol. 40, No. 46
By Hollie Deese

Looking to do good this holiday season, maybe downplay the materialism of it all?

Not a problem. Nashville is filled with tons of opportunities to do good, serve others and still have time to meet all the other obligations that fill this time of year.

Hands on Nashville is one of the first places that pops up when people in Middle Tennessee Google how to volunteer at the holidays. Currently celebrating its 25th year, HON very simply connects people interested in volunteering with opportunities to do just that.

“We started back in 1991, and our mission today is the same as it was back when we started, and that’s to connect volunteers to meet community needs with volunteers,” says Daniel Brown, communications coordinator with Hands on Nashville.

“Year over year, we are fortunate to work with thousands of folks who are just willing to give of their time and their energy, and it’s just really amazing what a few hours of time can do.”

HON has more than 130 official community partners ranging from schools to non-profits, including the mayor’s office, Metro Nashville Public Schools, the Metro Beautification Commission, Second Harvest Food Bank, Room in the Inn and dozens more.

“Our goal is really to build stronger communities through volunteer service, and so by forging great relationships with Metro Schools, who is one of our great partners, we are able to really play that intermediary role between understanding needs and then helping to come up with solutions and volunteer-led solutions to help them,” Brown says.

A holiday uptick

Brown says there is a noticeable increase this time of year among locals interested in helping, but it is not a drastic increase from the rest of the year, a testament to the volunteer spirit of the state.

“We definitely see an uptick in service and in folks who are wanting to give during the holiday season, but really I think we’re very fortunate that we live in a community where the giving of time and energy really doesn’t stop,” Brown adds. “They are so many different opportunities throughout the entire year that we like to try and point folks to.”

There are about 300 opportunities each month, Brown says, but because the holiday season does see more interest, they have put together an annual holiday volunteer guide over the past few years, the 2016 edition is out this week.

“We normally find out how people can help give their time, but this is the one time of year we really try to support non-profits through in-kind donations,” he explains.

“If organizations need food donations or donations of clothing or of office supplies to help their day-to-day operations, we try and do our best to connect volunteers in that way as well,’’ Brown says. “It’s completely online and interactive, and there are literally hundreds and hundreds of opportunities for folks to volunteer this holiday season.

“Whether that’s helping organize toys or organizing a coat drive, coming out to cook a meal, or even deliver a meal, our partners in the community are doing tremendous work year-round. This is a great time to really lift that up, and we’re really proud to have so many different opportunities listed on our calendar that folks can connect to.”

Brown got involved with HON a few years ago as a way to get to know his new city after relocating here with family. And he hasn’t been disappointed.

“It’s really been an unbelievable kind of introduction,” he says. “We gave away 200 bikes earlier in the summer with volunteers as well and [with] community centers. The waterway cleanups, the tree plantings, the corporate groups that come out to schools. We were just building a classroom yesterday with a great group of corporate volunteers at Paragon Mills Elementary.”

Brown points out there are countless ways people can help this season, including delivering for Meals on Wheels, giving gifts to children and to St. Luke’s Christmas House or working with at-risk children at Youth Villages.

“There are endless opportunities to help this time of year, but really all year,” Brown adds. “Reach out to these organizations. Call them. Try and understand how flexible these opportunities can be, because there really isn’t a time or a place that somebody can’t help.”

More homelessness

Safe Haven Development Director Rachael Wilkins also says there is increased interest of volunteerism at the family shelter over the holidays, but like HON, it is not too far out of line with the rest of the year – a testament to the giving nature of Nashvillians.

“But, in the spirit of the holidays, we definitely see an increase in calls and requests to be able to help families,” Wilkins says.

Safe Haven is the only shelter-to-housing program in Middle Tennessee that accepts the entire homeless family, keeping them together while providing comprehensive services that empower them to achieve self-sufficiency beyond housing. Safe Haven provides the immediate needs of shelter and stability, with space for 10 families with children in the shelter, and another 45 families with housing in the community.

“We have a myriad of ways to become involved during the holiday season,” Wilkins adds.

Safe Haven’s Blessings with Bows campaign allows people to make a donation to Safe Haven in honor of someone, with a card to the recipient. Or, cards can be sent with a Safe Haven Family Shelter ornament. People can sponsor a family for Christmas, or help the shelter stock up on items used on a daily basis.

“That really helps us keep our costs down here at Safe Haven and helps us to put every dollar into programs for families,” Wilkins says.

Something growing in popularity is their House Warming package which provides necessary items to families moving out of the shelter, from kitchen wares to living room furniture.

“Safe Haven really tries to make sure that the family doesn’t have to take their savings and spend funds on that,” she says. “We want to make sure that we can make that moving cost as minimal as possible.

“We have a needs list for House Warming packages where people can actually put together some items that will really bless a family while they’re in their new home. Just for example, pots and pans, crock-pots, coffee makers, bedding and towels, shower curtains.”

At Christmas they also see an increase in gift card donations which can help house a family that is from the shelter. But it can be just as simple as sending in a single Christmas card.

“It can be a really, I think, sad time for families around the holidays,” Wilkins says. “What we do is we try to lift their spirits by decking the walls with Christmas cheer. That way our families can read those, and it really helps as we’re decorating the shelter to give it that homey feel. Also, to let them know that there are people out there that are thinking of them during this difficult time.”

And while it seems people are always willing to help, the need at Safe Haven only continues to grow.

“In the last Mayor’s report, homelessness had increased by 25 percent in Nashville,” she says. “We’re also seeing the need for more affordable housing. Two of the greatest barriers for families experiencing homelessness include workforce development and affordable housing.

“Safe Haven employs a full-time housing coordinator that is going out in the community and really establishing partnerships with landlords to advocate for families, as well to negotiate the rental amount.”

And finding those affordable housing options is only getting harder, no matter what time of year it is.

“With Nashville being the ‘it’ city, it is definitely difficult to find more homes for families,” Wilkins says.

Safe Haven originated in1984 in St. Patrick’s Church on Second Avenue. In 2003 they merged with the organization known as Nashville Family Shelter and expanded their services. In 2012 they broke ground on an expansion campaign for their main shelter campus on Third Avenue South.

“Typically we are full here at the shelter,” Wilkins points out. “We are so fortunate to have the support of the community year round through our volunteer program, and I would encourage people to consider getting involved beyond the holidays. We have so many needs in so many ways they can really impact the lives of families experiencing homelessness. We have meals that are served every single night here at the shelter.

“We also have children’s program activities going on throughout the week, as well as for the parents, that people can get involved in. Group volunteers. There’s so many ways that they can give their time as well.”

Giving feels good too

Doug Gray, lead singer of The Marshall Tucker Band, got such a positive response after participating in last year’s Christmas 4 Kids concert at the Ryman Auditorium, there was no question he and his busy bandmates would take the stage again for the event founded by their longtime collaborator Charlie Daniels.

“I have two daughters and one of them has my grandkids, a little girl and a little boy, so I’m kind of into this kid thing,” Gray says.

“We’ve been raising money with the Marine Corps for years and years, and would always raise money for different outlets and for different causes and different reasons.

“This one happens to be one that’s close to us. Plus, it puts us right back in the Ryman which is one of our favorite places to play.”

Christmas 4 Kids was created in 1982 by Daniels, originally called Christmas Caravan.

Each December, local businesses, volunteers, celebrities, recording artists and their bus drivers set aside two days to help raise money to buy toys and necessities for area children.

Each November the Charlie Daniels and Friends Concert to benefit Christmas 4 Kids spurs the fundraising efforts, in addition to the Tour Bus Show later in the month when the drivers donate their time and show off the home-away-from home tour buses of the stars they drive around, for a small donation.

Past artists include Gretchen Wilson, Chris Young, Taylor Swift, Wynonna and Naomi Judd, Trace Adkins, Trisha Yearwood and Darryl Worley. Then nearly 400 children are transported by bus to a Christmas party in their honor, complete with lunch donated by Garth Brooks and a parade with Santa.

After the party, the kids meet up with shoppers at the Super Walmart in Hendersonville where they can each spend $150 on anything they want.

Plus, all the children each receive a new winter coat.

“In the musician’s world, you’re there to raise money,” Gray says. “You’re there for all the kids, and you’re playing your heart out. You’re getting all these people out there for a real reason, and 100 percent of the money goes to the kids and that’s the way it should be.”

Recently signed with Redline Management, Gray says 88 percent of their band’s shows last year were sold out. But giving time to ensure some kids get a good Christmas is something Gray will always make time for.

“It’s about somebody else besides us and Montgomery Gentry, helping to give kids that don’t have the ability to have a wonderful Christmas to have gifts for Christmas,” Gray says.