VOLUNTEERS' PRESENCE A GREAT PRESENT
By Gabriella Boston
THE WASHINGTON TIMES


Worrying that the family gets too absorbed in the material aspects of the holidays -- the decadent foods and piles of gifts? That's fixed easily, say representatives of Washington charitable organizations that plan to spend December preparing meals, painting shelters for the homeless, wrapping gifts for poor families and visiting the sick and elderly on Christmas Day.
 
 
    "There are so many opportunities out there for families," says Lavinia Balaci, volunteer coordinator at the Washington District of Columbia Jewish Community Center. "You can paint, prepare meals, wrap gifts -- the list goes on."
 
 
    Her group, the DCJCC, for example, will bring together more than 1,000 volunteers of all ages and religious backgrounds on Dec. 25 to do everything from donating blood to distributing food to shelters.
 
 
    "Our goal is to feed up to 15,000 people that day," Ms. Balaci says. "So, we need all the volunteers we can get."
 
 
    The DCJCC works with 37 agencies and nonprofit groups to pull off this giant event, which Ms. Balaci says takes about 11 months to plan. Also, she adds, the group needs donations galore, including toiletries and winter clothing that can be given away as gifts.
 
 
    "We need socks more than anything else," she says. "They're the number one item. ... In all, we plan to wrap about 10,000 gifts."
 
 
    Another group with plenty of December volunteer opportunities is Greater DC Cares, which works as a liaison between nonprofit organizations and those who want to volunteer.
 
 
    "We have at least 70 projects a month -- everything from cleaning up parks to delivering gift baskets," says Julie Howard, volunteer coordinator at Greater DC Cares.
 
 
    Ms. Howard says just about any type of volunteering opportunity can be suitable for children and teenagers as long as their parents prepare and supervise them.
 
 
    "I think it can be a real learning experience," she says. For example, children who have never met and talked to homeless people may have misconceptions about them, Ms. Howard says. Meeting them face to face can help shed some light, she adds.
 
 
    "You might think only a certain type of person is homeless, but then you find out that they had jobs, careers. They're not that different. They just need a little help right now," she says.
 
 
    For very young children who wish to help, Ms. Howard recommends meal preparation and gift wrapping.
 
 
    "You want to make it really hands-on," she says.
 
 
    Ms. Balaci agrees that families might consider visiting a home for the elderly or a shelter for homeless families, such as the Community for Creative Non-Violence, near Union Station, which has more than 1,350 beds for men, women and children.
 
 
    "I've seen the most amazing connections between volunteering families and the people at CCNV," Ms. Balaci says. "It gives me goose bumps just thinking about it."
 
 
    Giving a gift to someone who wouldn't otherwise receive a gift can have a huge effect on both the giver and receiver, she says.
 
 
    "There is such a spirit and energy in giving," she says.
 
 
    In the end, she says, she hopes the Dec. 25 DCJCC event will be the event of the holiday season, something no volunteer-minded person in the Washington area would want to miss.
 
 
    "Ultimately, I don't want there to be a single person who's forgotten that day," Ms. Balaci says.