How to spice up your charitable efforts and enjoy volunteering.

Advice on how to make the world better.
July 28 2010 6:55 AM

The Gift of a Good Time

How to spice up your charitable efforts and enjoy volunteering.

Do you have a real-life do-gooding dilemma? Please send it to ask.my.goodness@gmail.com.

Dance rehearsal . Click image to expand.
Volunteer opportunities abound in the arts

Dear My Goodness, I've always tried to find fun ways to volunteer in my community. I've served food in soup kitchens during the holidays and tutored kids after school for a while. But I always end up bored with the same repetitive charity work. I'd like to do something off the beaten path that serves those around me but is different and might teach me new skills—maybe something in the arts. What are some innovative ideas for getting out of this volunteer rut?—Denise in D.C.

Dear Denise,
One heartening and often overlooked fact about the city of Washington, where you live, is that it isn't populated exclusively by members of Congress, White House staff, Internal Revenue Service officials, and all those people on the Sunday talk shows.

The surprising and happy reality is that many Washingtonians are painters, actors, curators, writers, dancers, and balalaika players. You may wonder about the mention of balalaika players. This was my "who knew?" moment as I did some research on your behalf. The Washington Balalaika Society Orchestra is one of the groups affiliated with the Cultural Alliance of Greater Washington. The Cultural Alliance, a rich source of information about relatively small arts groups, also includes the GALA Hispanic Theatre, the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, and the very appealing Tappers With Attitude. (Have there ever been tappers without attitude? Even Shirley Temple …)

Dance is one arts category that doesn't immediately come to mind as a volunteering possibility. But dance troupes have a lot of work that needs doing, work that can be more challenging than the volunteer ushering jobs theater groups are likely to offer. Dance companies are looking for talented, willing, reliable people who can help set up the stage, videotape rehearsals and performances, and take photographs for documentation and publicity.

For theater, Washington has the Arena Stage, a pillar of the Washington theater scene, which offers coveted fellowships and also volunteer opportunities in the same categories. You might look for theater groups in your area with an unusual angle and a connection to schools. For example, the 52nd Street Project in New York City helps kids and teens write plays. The plays are directed and performed by professionals, with the young playwright sitting at the side of the stage. I saw Edie Falco onstage as a reindeer and Frances McDormand as a park ranger (not a big stretch for the sheriff in Fargo). Kids in the theater program can also get homework help via the project's Smart Partner program.

Fortunately, your town is full of grand and venerable art institutions, too. There's the mother of all art museums (North American division, anyway): the National Gallery of Art, where curators will teach you to be a docent—guiding visitors and educating them about the history of the art they're viewing. The fun part is that you also get to express your own preferences and opinions.

Docents enjoy themselves by introducing others to the paintings and sculptures they love. Another way to enjoy yourself in your volunteer work is by being with people who really appreciate your attention. There's a group called Look Good … Feel Better that helps women who've had some change in the way they look because of chemotherapy or radiation treatment for cancer. The loss of hair, including brows and lashes, combined with changes in skin texture and color, make a patient feel strange, disturbingly not like her familiar self. Sometimes we think of cosmetics as trivial, but in this case, skilled help can lift a patient's depression, help her to be comfortable at work, and to live with more confidence. The organization, of course, likes to sign up licensed beauty professionals, but new volunteers can be trained and certified by the American Cancer Society. The group has branches across the country, including one in Washington.

If you'd rather be outside, consider the U.S. National Arboretum, where you can be trained to be a garden tour guide or work beside skilled gardeners taking care of their plant collections, including the famous azaleas. The arboretum asks for a one-year commitment and a pledge of at least four hours a week. At their Beltsville, Md., branch you can learn plant propagation—how to make more azaleas. Getting back to the arts, arboretum staff will teach interested volunteers to do bonsai, the Japanese technique combining plant knowledge with sculpting.

And if you're looking for something truly down to earth, take a look at Washington's Neighborhood Farm Initiative. Or by way of D.C.'s Field to Fork Network, you can find other groups that will teach you about growing food in the city.

Good for you for wanting to learn something new and escape from the dutiful rut. I bet charity administrators would say that the best volunteer is not a self-sacrificing would-be saint but someone willing to learn who can have a good time doing the work. Certainly a nonprofit group wants a volunteer who believes in the mission, but there's nothing wrong with that person looking to get something back. In fact, the reward obviously increases the commitment.

—Constance

Do you have a real-life do-gooding dilemma? Please send it to ask.my.goodness@gmail.com.

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Constance Casey is a former New York City Department of Parks gardener and writes the monthly "Species" column for Landscape Architecture Magazine.