Who do you serve: Chicago Volunteer Expo

Robin Bridges, Editor in Chief

The Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum (2430 North Cannon Drive) housed more than 100 organizations on Feb. 18, all looking for volunteers in Chicago and beyond. Hundreds of volunteers staffed tables packed with flyers about events and opportunities. This event also had so many resources for something to do over the summer. Graduation is closer than it seems, it was the perfect event for people interested in beefing up their resume.
This event went from being a set of information tables to a full-on day of active participation.

Senior Director of Public Engagement for the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum Jill Doub said, “We got such great feedback (after the first year) both from nonprofits that we exhibit and from the attendees who said ‘This is so much better than trying to google volunteer opportunities in Chicago.’ You make connections with people who would never turn up in a search engine.”

If you were looking for a specific type of organization, the museum provided a map of the tables with a key that broke down what each organization focused on. Tables weren’t grouped inside the museum leaving potential volunteers stumbling around a mix of organizations in each room throughout the museum. It was easy to miss a table here and there, but overall it was inspiring to see so many people interested in volunteering.

Helping other humans
A majority of the organizations were looking for volunteers to help other people. From food pantries to fundraising, social media to tour guides, these organizations below are looking for people who want to get involved and help people:

For those looking to socialize: Volunteering Untapped, VolunteeringUntappedChi.com.
Find them on Facebook because they are more of a volunteer pool than a single service provider. They partner with local nonprofits to supply volunteers for single day events. They also emphasize their social aspect. After each volunteer day they partner with a local bar to socialize and celebrate over drink specials.

Serving those who serve: USO of Illinois, USOofIllinois.org.
Founded during WWII in 1941, the USO of Illinois serves all branches of the military. They host single events as well as have centers that can be a place of rest for service members and their families. There are five volunteer staffed centers in the Chicagoland area. Volunteers help visitors to the USO find local resources, grab a snack and relax with their family in a quiet space.

For those who get crafty: New Life for Old Bags
NLOB takes used plastic grocery bags and makes them into “plarn,” a plastic yarn that volunteers crochet into sleeping mats for homeless people living on the street. “If someone receives this mat, they’ll feel that others love and care about them. Maybe it’ll help them to move off the street and come back to society,” Carl Donis explained why he volunteers. His wife, Anna, said volunteers don’t need to come to one of the seven campuses to help. “We’ll train anyone who wants to learn. They can take it back and teach others to make mats.” All seven sites accept mats to be donated to shelters across the city.

Worth a closer look: GiveNKind, GiveNKind.org
GiveNKind isn’t exactly a place to volunteer, except that it is. They’re a non-profit whose main goal is to support other charities. They gather “in-kind” donations or donations of material goods in order to give them to charities who are either just starting up or aren’t large enough to have a dedicated development or fundraising department. You can partner with them as a donor to get goods to a charity or nonprofits can partner with them to receive donations.

Helping smaller humans

While many organizations focus on helping everyone they can, there were a few who specifically want to help children. Those who want to work with children this section is for you.

Ladies of Virtue, LOVChicago.org
Ladies of Virtue is a program that mentors young girls ages 10-18 from fourth grade through college years. Mentors help girls through tough teen years. They work with girls and their families to make sure that everyone is feeling heard and empowered. You can sign up to be a long-term mentor or a mentor for a day.

Girl Scouts, GirlScoutsGCNWI.org
Boy Scouts and Venture Scouts of America, PathwayToAdventure.org
These three programs work with children from ages 6 through 21. They build indoor and outdoor skills through the eye of community service. Girl Scouts recently launched an initiative into the field of STEM. Boy Scouts has recently started co-ed “venturing,” an outdoor adventure program that allows boys and girls to choose their own project and work together to complete it. Each group is lead by volunteer leaders who plan, guide and provide resources for the youth in their group.

Cardz For Kidz, CardzForKidz.org
Cardz for Kidz partner with local hospitals to deliver uplifting cards to kids around the globe. They accept handmade cards to be sent both to kids in local hospitals as well as kids who have suffered a tragedy anywhere in the world. They have sent cards to children affected by the Sandy Hook school shooting and Boston Marathon bombing. They welcome cards made by kids or adults and in multiple languages.

Stand Up For Kids, StandUpForYouth.org
National Runaway Safeline, 1800Runaway.org
Both programs focus on helping youth without a stable home. The National Runaway Safeline was established in 1971 and has maintained a crisis line staffed mainly by volunteers. They also have a street team to keep the awareness of the service alive. Stand Up For Kids is a program run almost entirely by volunteers that help youth living on the street or in shelters. One of their goals is to build healthy relationships and provide a link to services to keep youth as safe as they can.

The main theme of the day was service. Doub said, “We consider this event a one-stop-shop for anyone looking for a meaningful volunteer opportunity in Chicago. We’re so grateful that people turn out year after year and so glad that we could make this impact.”

Many organizations were looking to help the environment, wildlife and animals or green spaces. Several were looking to help children and young adults through mentorship and tutoring. Some were looking to help those dealing with an illness.

The question that everyone seemed to be asking was “How can I serve?”

Doub’s advice for all volunteers: “You’re volunteering. This shouldn’t feel like an obligation. It should be a mutually beneficial relationship. You’re getting as much out of this as (organizations) are.”

Doub said, “One of my favorite things about (Chicago Volunteer Expo) is that we’re able to create this really robust mix of organizations so you have big ones like Chicago Cares and the Nature Museum who use tons of volunteers that are pretty well-resourced. Then we also have tiny little community-based organizations that maybe don’t even have a website.. Otherwise, you wouldn’t even know that there were opportunities to help them.”

For a full list of the exhibitors check out ChicagoVolunteerExpo.com.

Advice for volunteers

New volunteers:
Consider what you’re passionate about
Consider your schedule
Don’t over commit
Think about what truly motivates you
Think about what you’re going enjoy doing

Step up your volunteer game:
There’s no harm in volunteering at multiple places