No matter what is going on in the world around us, it's always within our power to contribute to positive change. Every day is a new chance to make a difference, big or small, and here are a few easy and direct ways to be of service all year long.
Donate and Get Creative
Your local food banks and homeless shelters will still need non-perishable items and warm clothing long after the holiday decorations are stored back in the attic. Make small monthly donations of canned goods and clothes—and, whether you’re “shopping in your closet” or going to your local Goodwill, be sure to pick out dress shirts, dresses, pants and jackets for someone to wear to a potential job interview. Many shelters are also in need of personal care items that you can easily snatch up at a dollar store, or on sale in travel-size: toothpaste and toothbrushes, shampoos and skin creams, deodorants, lip balms, and feminine hygiene products like pads and tampons.
Start a Little Free Library
If you’ve ever happened upon a Little Free Library—those miniature replicas of red-brick schoolhouses stocked with books—you might’ve thought it was part of a city or county-wide initiative to get kids to put down their smartphones and crack open a book. However, these free community libraries are established and maintained by people like you—in fact, a man who wanted to honor his schoolteacher mom started the very first one in his front yard. Visit the Little Free Library website for tips on building your own library. Or, if you’re not the handy sort, you can simply start a “take a book, leave a book” project with nothing more than a durable box, a piece of cardboard, a marker, and some moxie. You can also leave boxes of books at local laundromats—you’re not only helping your fellow mortals escape the tedium of another rinse cycle, you’re also providing a makeshift library to people who might have limited transportation and access to the real deal.
Spread the Love—and the Goodies
The laundromat is prime real estate for random acts of kindness. Tape baggies of quarters to some washers and dryers, or leave behind shopping bags filled with bottled water, toilet paper, protein bars, vitamins, and puzzle books. Keep a few of these bags in your car so you can hand them out to the people who need them (and that personal touch can brighten someone’s day as much the goods themselves). You might also try to leave a few on public buses (after asking the driver’s permission, of course).
Commit Random Acts of Beauty
One of my neighbors turns her front porch into a wonderland of potted and hanging plants in an astonishing array of bright colors and invites other neighbors to come sit in of one her patio chairs and let go of our stresses for a moment. With only a trip to a farmer’s market and some Goodwill furniture, she’s created a miniature oasis of calm.
Broaden Your Horizons Close to Home
Creating a more positive, peaceful world means embracing people who come from different cultures, faiths, and communities. Challenge yourself by volunteering for an organization outside of your cultural wheelhouse. A friend of mine, who happens to be an avowed atheist, just signed up to cut vegetables for a food bank run by a Franciscan order. Follow his lead and contact a house of worship or a cultural group and ask if you can help them prepare meals for the needy, assist with ongoing charity drives, or provide child care during services and programs.
Joining a mentoring program like Big Brothers Big Sisters of America (or Big Brothers and Sisters of Canada, if that’s where you are), or an afterschool literacy program in your city is another wonderful volunteer option and a great way to meet youngsters from all levels of society who need comfort and companionship.
If you don’t have the time to volunteer, but want to express your solidarity with people from other faiths and communities, you could make like a particularly crafty pal of mine who draws and colors her own greeting cards and sends them to community centers and places of worship. The messages inside don’t have to be terribly complicated, just a “howdy neighbor” and a “we’re glad you’re here!” are always welcome.
Help the Helpers
People in caregiving professions—nurses, social workers, staff at shelters for homeless people or women fleeing domestic violence, attorneys at public defenders’ offices, teachers, and workers at animal welfare groups—can often feel overworked and underappreciated. Lift their spirits by sending thank you cards, arranging for a surprise delivery of flowers or food, or simply calling to say that you’re grateful for their service.
Make New Friends
One of the simplest, yet most profound, ways to make a difference in someone’s life is by showing up for them. Taking an hour or two to sit with a lonely senior can have a huge impact on their quality of life and even their health. Contact a nursing home or assisted living facility and ask if you can meet with a resident who doesn’t receive regular visitors. If you’re not sure what to say, just bring a pack of cards, a crossword puzzle, and an open mind.
Turn a Neighborhood into a Community
Collect your neighbors’ email addresses and start a community mailing list. You can use this list to help people find babysitters and dog walkers, rides to the store, or even recipes. It can also be a valuable tool for coordinating snow clean-up efforts (particularly for ill or elderly neighbors who might not be able to shovel), and organizing neighborhood potlucks and get-togethers.