Travel

Here's How to Volunteer in Houston This Holiday Season

'Tis the season for giving back.

Rescued Pets Movement
Rescued Pets Movement
Rescued Pets Movement

The holidays are coming up, and 2020 has been a rough year for many. If you’d like to help lift spirits and make the season a little easier for Houston’s most vulnerable, you can. Try volunteering your time at one of the city’s impactful organizations. We’ve listed some of the best ways to do just that below, broken down by interest, but you can check out volunteer resources and matching programs like VolunteerHouston, national database VolunteerMatch, and Houston philanthropy guide Giving Black, too.

Houston Habitat for Humanity
Houston Habitat for Humanity
Houston Habitat for Humanity

For those who’d like to support Houston’s homeless and disadvantaged 

Volunteerism is critical to Houston’s homeless and disadvantaged communities all year long. Local nonprofit SEARCH helps move people from the streets and keep them stably housed, fed, and healthy. Join its Young Professionals program; work as a kitchen/lunch cart volunteer or art studio assistant at House of Tiny Treasures, its childhood education branch; or help with pantry stocking, hurricane kit assembling, and more. The Beacon provides civil legal aid, counseling and mentoring, and access to housing to hundreds of homeless men and women in Houston. You can sign up for kitchen and laundry duties or intake/front desk work at the Day Center, or look into the Young Professional and other group programs. You can also physically help
create affordable places for Houstonians to call home via Houston Habitat for Humanity, from open build construction to community projects and work at its ReStore home improvement store and donation centers. Looking to help refugees, immigrants, and anyone who faces financial, educational, health, language, or cultural barriers in realizing their dreams? The Alliance helps to create opportunities for the disadvantaged, and volunteering opportunities range from foreign language interpretation and clerical assistance to special events like toy and coat drives.

For those who want to help in the healthcare field

Houston’s Ronald McDonald House works to provide a meaningful home away from home to families of seriously ill children being treated in Texas Medical Center, and they could use a special hand during the holiday season. Help create magical moments by stocking Santa’s workshop, signing up to help deck the halls, sponsoring a holiday activity, or applying to become a volunteer. Volunteers over at the Texas Children’s Hospital support pediatric patients by playing games, interacting with families, and assisting with administrative duties; and Candlelighters Houston offers a Young Professionals Group that strives to make life a little bit easier for children who have cancer and those that love them. Over at Houston Memorial Hermann Hospice Care, volunteers can help run special events, visit patients, run errands, bake cookies, play music, and more (to volunteer, a TB screening and background check are required and hospice training will be provided). There are also opportunities to help out at the hospital’s Prevention and Recovery Center, Physical Rehabilitation Hospital, and Children’s Hospital. Sign to volunteer with Planned Parenthood and the group will connect you to what is most needed right now, from making phone calls in your living room to being trained to help out in a local health center. 

Houston Food Bank
Houston Food Bank
Houston Food Bank

For those who want to help end hunger in Houston

This season, help provide much needed hunger relief by donating your time to The Houston Food Bank, which serves the over 1.1 million people in 18 southeast Texas counties that are considered food insecure and happens to be America’s largest food bank in distribution. Second Servings of Houston takes volunteers for food rescue events, pop-up food distributions, deliveries and more. And Kids’ Meals, which makes and delivers healthy meals directly to the homes of hungry children, could use kitchen help, delivery drivers, and riders to help its cause.

For those who want to aid in the fight for social and legal justice 

Consider donating your time to the NAACP Houston chapter by joining a specific committee, helping out in the office, or advocating for vital civil rights issues. Non-partisan advocacy group Houston Justice is looking for coordinating team members, organizers, and volunteers to help eradicate injustice; and Restoring Justice, which provides holistic legal defense and social services to the over 70,000 in Houston who face criminal accusations and can’t afford legal services, could use volunteers for fundraising, supply delivery, information distribution, and one-on-one emotional and spiritual support. Want to put that law degree to good use? Those who practice law in the state of Texas can become a part of Houston Volunteer Lawyers, the pro bono legal aid arm of the Houston Bar Association.

Houston Area Women's Center
Houston Area Women’s Center
Houston Area Women’s Center

For those who want to help victims of abuse

Ending domestic and sexual violence for all is the goal of the Houston Area Women’s Center, which sits over in Montrose. Get involved in the volunteer-founded organization by joining the volunteer team, which can include anything from answering calls on the Crisis Hotline to child care activities (opportunities are currently limited due to COVID-19 precautions, but reach out to see how you can help). Star of Hope’s Women and Family Development Center provides safe housing and emotional healing. Check out its virtual volunteer opportunities right now and look out for in-person opps in the future. AVDA (Aid to Victims of Domestic Abuse) is a big part of the anti-violence movement in Texas, providing invaluable resources for men and women that are victims of domestic abuse. Apply to volunteer in outreach, administrative assistance, special events, translation, court accompaniment, and more.  

Project Row Houses
Project Row Houses
Project Row Houses

Fo those who want to help the arts community

Super cool community art platform the Project Row Houses, which sits in one the oldest African-American neighborhoods in Houston, the historic Third Ward, is looking for volunteers to work with at a wide variety of events and activities year-round. Nonprofit group Multicultural Education and Counseling Through the Arts, aka MECA Houston, is committed to community building of underserved youth and adults through arts and cultural programming. Donate your time as a tutors, mentor, or board member, special events assistance, or in marketing or fundraising activities. Musical theatre nonprofit TUTS is always looking for volunteers to join its mission, from work in its theatre operations and classrooms to special events.

To help those struggling with mental illness or contemplating self-harm or suicide

With social isolation increasing due to the pandemic, depression is as serious an issue as ever. Local nonprofit Crisis Intervention of Houston operates free, confidential crisis and suicide prevention counseling, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Sign up online to get involved and take the upcoming training courses this season; or contact the Texas Suicide Prevention Council to learn about volunteer opportunities locally. Local organization re:MIND offers free and confidential support groups for individuals living with depression and bipolar disorders, as well as family and friends affected by it. Email to find out current volunteer opportunities. Through grassroots efforts, NAMI Greater Houston gives families and persons affected by mental illness a powerful voice in the mental health community (volunteers can sign up online). 

Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Houston
Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Houston
Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Houston

For those interested in mentorship and education 

Volunteering with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Houston means changing the lives of local youths in all communities. Help effect change and build lasting friendships by becoming a mentor, or simply donate your time by volunteering at an event. Become a tutor in English, math, science, and history for SHAPE (Self-Help for African People through Education), an African American community center that provides youth outreach, programs, and activities locally. Houston’s Recipe for Success is all about providing kids with seed-to-plant nutrition education, with no shortage of volunteer opportunities to help with its cause of combating childhood obesity by changing the way children understand, appreciate, and eat their food,

For bookworms

With the pandemic closing down schools for the better half of the year, childhood education has been hard hit, especially in low-income areas (it’s been estimated that 85% of Houston ISD’s elementary-aged children live at or below the poverty line). Books Between Kids makes an effort to help with that, providing Houston’s at-risk children with books to build their own home libraries. Volunteer to sort and box books at the warehouse, or organize a book drive to collect new or gently used books to donate. The Houston Public Library Foundation could also use volunteers to process books in the warehouse, help run special events, and organize book drives. And though Books for Development is not currently accepting volunteers, a donation can help move recycled books to underdeveloped countries around the world.

Rescued Pets Movement
Rescued Pets Movement
Rescued Pets Movement

For animal lovers

It’s a sad fact that thousands of adoptable dogs and cats are euthanized in the Greater Houston area each year. Rescued Pets Movement gives them a second chance through rehabilitation and placement, and volunteering opportunities range from pet fostering and fundraising to driving the pets to their forever homes. The Houston Humane Society is always looking for folks to help better the lives of the homeless animals; as is animal rescue and protection organization Houston SPCA, which also rocks a Wildlife Center Volunteer Program to help injured, sick, or orphaned native wildlife survive and thrive. Or try volunteering at Friends For Life Animal Shelter & Sanctuary to walk and feed doggies, care for kitties, assist with playdates, and more.

For those who want to help the LGBTQIA+ community 

The Montrose Center is the cultural hub of Houston’s LGBTQIA+ community, providing mental health counseling, group therapy, sexual health therapy, violence survivor services, drug abuse recovery coaching, programs for youth, veterans, women, transgender people, and more; and volunteerism is the absolute backbone of its efforts. Montrose Grace Place seeks to provide a safe space for youth of all sexualities and gender identities. Direct volunteers interact as adult mentors, sitting down for family-style meals with youth, providing support during group discussions, and more; while indirect volunteers keep the place’s mission going. Sign up to help empower the homeless LGBTQIA+ youth of Houston at local drop-in center Tony’s Place; or join the Human Rights Campaign Houston, and check out its Community Hub to find ways to get involved.
 

Buffalo Bayou Partnership
Buffalo Bayou Partnership
Buffalo Bayou Partnership

For those who want to keep Houston clean and green

Keep H-town pretty via clean-up programs, recycling education projects, and beautification efforts with local community organization, Keep Houston Beautiful. Or volunteer at one of the city’s finest parks by checking out the programs at Buffalo Bayou Partnership (which hosts monthly volunteer workdays on the third Saturday of each month) and Hermann Park Conservancy, which identified an annual 20,000 hour gap in what the city’s Parks and Rec department is able to provide versus what the actual park needs to be properly preserved (volunteering helps with that). The Air Houston Alliance is on a mission to ensure everyone can breathe clean air; and you can sign up to join the cause or lend your voice by contacting local officials.

Brooke Viggiano is a Houston-based writer who encourages you to lend a hand in any way you can this holiday season. Share your efforts with her on IG @brookiefafa or on Twitter @brookeviggiano.

Travel

8 Suburbs Near Phoenix You Should Absolutely Visit

You could use a little space.

Discover Gilbert AZ
Discover Gilbert AZ
Discover Gilbert AZ

Phoenix is pretty great. There’s the burgeoning culinary scene, the diverse culture, the arts, of course, the sports, the great outdoors, and don’t forget about the more than 300 days of annual sunshine. We could really go on, and on, about how great this place is, but all of that greatness can blind you to all the excellence just outside it. The suburbs across The Valley are not to be missed. To encourage you to actually explore them, here’s what the best of ‘em have to offer.

Photo courtesy of Tempe Tourism
Photo courtesy of Tempe Tourism
Photo courtesy of Tempe Tourism

Tempe

Notably, Tempe is recognized as home to one of the largest universities in the country, Arizona State. But this Phoenix suburb is so much more than a college town, although it does add to its undeniable magic. Downtown Tempe plays hosts to epic arts festivals, dragon boat races, marathons and triathlons, and dozens of other events that all take place a short-distance from Tempe Town Lake, a two-mile long perennial reservoir and urban park that attracts cylicts, rowers, and active types. Break a sweat with a hike to the top of A Mountain and take in a panoramic sunset view. Or, just belly-up to the bar at one of Tempe’s innumerable craft breweries. Both are solid choices. And both can get you acquainted with this laidback Phoenix suburb.

Photo courtesy of Hotel Valley Ho
Photo courtesy of Hotel Valley Ho
Photo courtesy of Hotel Valley Ho

Scottsdale

Nearly half of Scottsdale’s land area is dedicated to open spaces and untamed desert. Outdoor activities like mountain biking, hiking, road cycling, horseback riding, and kayaking reign supreme here, and the city certainly leans toward an active, wellness-centered lifestyle. And while there’s no shortage of desert to explore, Scottsdale also claims some of the best spas in the world, award-winning restaurants, world-class golf courses, it’s the center stage for major events like luxury car auctions and sporting events, and it’s even got a bustling arts scene. This Phoenix suburb checks all of the boxes, really.

Photo by Lauren Topor Reichert
Photo by Lauren Topor Reichert
Photo by Lauren Topor Reichert

Gilbert

Not too long ago Gilbert was a sort of sleepy, far-away farm town. That’s certainly not the case anymore. Gilbert has grown exponentially, but its agricultural roots are still readily present in its personality and charm. Downtown Gilbert is home to dozens of restaurants and bars, most of which have a local, farm-to-table approach, naturally. And then there’s Agritopia, a friendly neighborhood with its very own shared garden and community spaces that include Epicenter and BARNONE, where you can order a wood-fired pizza, a can of experimental natural wine, and camp out under a canopy of trees in the open-air. It’s practically a utopia.

Mike Boening Photography
Mike Boening Photography
Mike Boening Photography

Cave Creek

A gateway to Horseshoe and Bartlett Lakes, Cave Creek’s position on the outskirts of Tonto National Forest makes it a primo spot for outdoor activities like biking and hiking and adventure by way of air balloon or horseback. Modern cowboys and gals can mosey over to The Buffalo Chip Saloon where bull riding and swing dancing are just part of a typical day. Additionally, Cave Creek has its own botanical garden, raptor rescue, and a gallery packed with person-sized crystals. And it’s all yours to discover.

Ade Russell/Flickr
Ade Russell/Flickr
Ade Russell/Flickr

Mesa

Point your GPS east and you’ll arrive in Mesa, Arizona’s third largest city. Whether you’re after outdoor adventure, looking to explore the arts and culture scene, or searching for locally made ciders and craft beer, Mesa has it all. There’s a hip, growing downtown area lined with storefronts, restaurants, theaters, and tasting rooms. And if you’re game for a little outdoor recreation, Mesa is your jumping-off point to scenic Sonoran Desert trails including Usery Mountain Regional Park, Lost Dutchman State Park, and San Tan Regional Park. Mesa is also just a short distance from The Salt River where you can cruise by wild horses and native wildlife via paddle board and Saguaro Lake is just up the road.

Experience Fountain Hills
Experience Fountain Hills
Experience Fountain Hills

Fountain Hills

At the center of this Phoenix suburb is an expansive urban park and monumental water fountain that tops out at 560-feet. The fountain in Fountain Hills is larger than the Washington Monument, and it’s three times as high as Old Faithful. Pack a picnic and spread out in the park for an afternoon where you can traverse the walkable paths, cycle around the waterway, or play a competitive bout of frisbee golf. If you swing more towards traditional golf, there’s a shortlist of premier golf courses to tee-off at. And like many of the Phoenix suburbs here, Fountain Hills is surrounded by wide-open desert and scenic vistas just waiting to be explored.

Camelback Ranch - Glendale
Camelback Ranch – Glendale
Camelback Ranch – Glendale

Glendale

Arizona sports teams including the Coyotes and Cardinals have home turf advantage in Glendale. Over the years Glendale has hosted three Super Bowl bouts and will host another in 2023. But Glendale’s not just a sports mecca for fans of professional football and hockey. This Phoenix suburb is homebase to Camelback Ranch, a modern ballpark with all the amenities where the Chicago White Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers take the field each season as part of Cactus League Spring Training. Take your time in Glendale into extra innings and visit Historic Old Town Glendale. Here you’ll encounter eclectic antique and vintage stores, restaurants, candy shops, and coffee houses.

Pedal Haus Brewery
Pedal Haus Brewery
Pedal Haus Brewery

Chandler 

Museums, urban parks, art galleries, and growing neighborhoods like Uptown Chandler and Downtown Chandler give this Phoenix suburb lots of appeal. Rows of palm trees line the Downtown area where you can start your day with a locally roasted coffee and organic breakfast bowl. Downtown Chandler regularly hosts community-focused events and it’s a popular hangout for craft beer drinkers. SanTan Brewery, Pedal Haus, and The Perch, with 40 beers on tap and tropical birds at every turn, all call this Phoenix suburb home.

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Lauren Topor Reichert is a Phoenix-based multimedia storyteller, photographer, and content creator. Her work has been featured in travel guides, national publications, and the social feeds of some stellar local restaurants. Follow her around Arizona, and beyond, on Instagram @hungryinphoenix.

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