While there are many things to miss about pre-COVID days, something that I miss the most is in-person volunteering and protesting. As an extroverted environmentalist, it was ideal for me—getting to hang out with people while also doing some good. We’ve been in the age of COVID for over a year now, so this year I’ve had to get creative and volunteer (and protest) virtually or from home. While it doesn’t have that in-person social component, it does just as much good and actually feels just as rewarding.
I’ve seen a huge drop in how often people volunteer over this year though, because people don’t realize that these opportunities are there. There are still so many ways to volunteer, and while they may take more initiative on your end, they’re worth exploring. Here are some ideas to get you started:
Do a virtual protest.
This simply means doing what you would do at a protest, but at home (minus all of the screaming probably). Make a sign for the cause, dress in clothes that match it if you’d like, and take a photo. Post it online with a caption that explains the cause and how others can get on board. This is obviously not as exciting as yelling with hundreds of other people about animal rights or the need to stop pipelines from getting built, but it does the same thing. It spreads awareness about the issue, and it’s a way for you to show up for it. It also is more in the faces of people who need to hear about it, because while in-person protests are only visible to those nearby, virtual ones reach thousands of people who are online, including those who follow you. Use hashtags, even if you don’t normally do that, to make sure this important issue reaches more people to make your protest especially effective. You can include a challenge in your caption if you want others to get more involved too! For example if you’re protesting ocean pollution, ask people to try and not use plastic for a week and document your own attempt at it. This is a fantastic way to also keep the protest going for more than when you post it.
If you don’t know where to start, there are lots of organized virtual protests all of the time. The Fridays for Future protests got moved online, and every Friday those who want to participate just have to post a picture with their sign and the group’s hashtag to join in! I have done this a few times and it’s so rewarding because you feel the camaraderie of people all around the world fighting for the planet with you.
Go on a solo litter walk.
If you want to get some outdoor time, this is a great option to try out. Grab a few garbage bags (and maybe some gloves or a picker-upper of some kind), and go walking. When you see litter, simply pick it up! Aim to prioritize walking near water systems, as litter near those can be especially harmful and polluting. If you want to get in the river or lake, just remember to bring mukluks and clothes that can get wet. When you get home, sort what you need to (for recycling) and toss the rest.
If you want to make this social, let people know a few days in advance that you’re going to go on a litter walk at say 3 p.m.. Post an announcement on social media about it or text your friends. Let them know that whoever wants to join you just needs to walk and pick up litter at that time as well where they live, and take pictures of it to post afterwards. Take pictures while you do it as well, and afterwards post your pictures. If you are able to, tell people that however many likes your photo gets is the amount of dollars you’ll donate to a local environmental organization.
Organize a socially distanced documentary screening.
This may be more complicated than the other options in this article, but it’s a really effective way to inspire people. Film and art touches people more than most other educational mediums because people are very visual. Pick out a documentary that really affected you or inspired you to treat the planet better or educated you about an important topic. You can either show it virtually or safely in-person.
To do it virtually, this may take some tech savvy, but announce on social media that you’ll be showing the film and talk about why it matters. Invite people to see it for free or in exchange for a donation to a related charity or cause. If you want to create a stronger sense of unity, tell everyone it’s a wine and documentary night or a vegan sandwich and documentary night so that everyone can be eating or drinking the same (or similar) things while they watch. It will feel like they’re together learning.
If you want to opt for an in-person event, just make sure it’s very socially distanced. In your invitation or announcement about it be sure to remind people to wear mask (no mask, no entry), and to not come if they have a fever or anything. Space the chairs apart and enforce social distancing guidelines. There are schools and libraries that host things like this currently, so that’s always an option as far as venue goes.
Volunteer at your local community garden.
A lot of community gardens are struggling right now, even though now is when they are needed more than ever. Figure out where yours is if you haven’t already been there, and get in touch with the people who run it (check their website for contact information). Ask them what they need and volunteer to help! They may need weeding, community outreach, planting, or any number of other tasks so be prepared for whatever they ask from you. Bring gloves and a mask just in case there are people. This is a great way to spend time outside and do something for your community. Post about your work on social media so others are inspired to do the same, and so that locals know that they have a community garden that they can use! Many don’t know where theirs is or if they even have one, so try to combat that.
Call your local senior center and ask what they need.
Senior centers are really struggling right now, and while they may not want you to come in-person and do anything (because it could be risky for the residents), they may need something that can be done outside the center. This could include anything from running errands for the residents to teaching a virtual Spanish class to the residents for an activity. Just be flexible and have fun with it!
Order food for hospital workers.
Hospital workers are heroes always, but right now it is a rough time for them. Nurses and doctors are under even more stress than usual, and they could use all the help they can get. Many aren’t leaving to take breaks or get food, so it’s really helpful to have some sent for them. Order them something that won’t be messy and will be easy to eat quickly or be saved for later so people can grab what they want as they come and go. Sandwiches are great for that (Subway does catering packages that work great) and pizza can be good but keep in mind it won’t stay hot. Use your best judgement, and try to support local businesses if one has a good option for this kind of thing. I’ve done this a few times for my local hospital and fair warning—it gets pretty expensive. You won’t be able to buy enough food for everyone (that would be like $500), so just buy the amount that you can. Any bit is helpful.
Other essential workers like delivery people have the same problem of not always getting breaks, and they aren’t paid much. If you want to feed them as well, put some things out in front of your door with a note letting them know that they can take what they want. I like to put out canned goods and snacks that don’t need refrigeration so I can just keep them out, but I also put out necessities like toilet paper, soap, and menstrual products. Whatever you can afford to put out, just do that, but prioritize putting out food.
Download an app.
There are lots of apps that help people volunteer and they’re pretty amazing. For example, Be My Eyes lets you help blind people grocery shop. There are lots of apps that help you log local plant species that you identify, which helps scientists measure the effect that global warming has on your area. There are so many to choose from, so figure out what you’re interested in and narrow it down from there.
We need to be volunteering now more than ever. So many are struggling, and while it’s not always as fun to volunteer alone, it still needs to be done. Find some ways that are enjoyable to you, and try to participate in them often. Don’t be afraid to post about it either- it will hopefully lead to more people following your lead!
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Photo: Emily Iris Degn