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12 Ways to Spend a Volunteer Year

This author provides 12 different ways for giving back to the community, no matter where you live.

Spending a year in volunteer service is a wonderful way to embrace our call to make a positive impact — to lend your voice and energy to those in need. Wherever you serve, you’ll have the chance to dive right into hands-on work in an area of need, build community, and expand your horizons by meeting and working with people of backgrounds different from your own.

If you’re considering a year of post-graduate service, you’ve likely heard of the major players: Americorps, Teach for America, the Peace Corps, and Habitat for Humanity are all household names. But what else is out there? As you engage a search to consider a place to serve, here are some starting points to consider.

Catholic programs

There are 185 different Catholic volunteer programs (though you don’t have to be Catholic to serve as a volunteer with them). Refine your search with the Catholic Volunteer Network database — you can filter for all kinds of factors that are important to you, such as community living, length of service, type of work, and geographical location.

If that’s too overwhelming, narrow your search by considering two proven programs. The Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) is a two-year, faith-based fellowship that places volunteers as full-time teachers at underserved Catholic schools across the U.S. ACE teachers concurrently earn a free masters of education degree from the University of Notre Dame. ACE volunteers live in community with one another, and the program provides a small living stipend.

The Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC) and Jesuit Volunteer Corps Northwest (JVCNW) are one-year service programs grounded in the Jesuit tradition built around four core program values: simple living, spirituality, social justice, and service. Participants work in full-time direct service positions at U.S. non-profits (there are some placements overseas, as well). Volunteer positions include teaching, case management, after-school mentoring, community organizing, and legal aid.

JVC and JVCNW have common roots, but exist in different contexts. Participants of both programs live in intentional community with each other, receive free housing, free health insurance, earn a small stipend for food, and attend faith development retreats throughout the year. JVCNW serves the Pacific Northwest and Alaska; JVC serves all other states (except Hawaii) and six international communities. Note that JVCNW’s placements are in much more remote locations than those of JVC, though there are placements in Seattle and Portland for volunteers seeking an urban environment. JVCNW also differs from JVC in that it is affiliated with Americorps, which allows participants to receive an education grant for their service. Many JVCNW worksites focus on American Indian populations; one consequence is that JVCNW asks its participants to refrain from alcohol during their year of service to acknowledge the devastating effects of alcohol use in the communities they serve.

Domestic programs

If your idea of service is contributing to the common good here in America, there are a number of service options to choose from. Service Year Alliance is an organization advocating for young Americans to offer a year of paid full-time service to their communities — they are a good source for opportunties. The Corporation for National and Community Service can connect you to thousands of volunteer opportunities — many in your own backyard.

If you don’t want to pull a program from a hat, Americorps is a network of national service programs that are worth considering. American Conservation Experience is an Americorps-affiliate program that offers service work with environmental restoration projects in U.S. parks. The majority of its placement opportunities are with its conservation corps. Participants typically live in tents or in staff cabins and work outdoors full-time on a team doing trail work and restoration. This program also offers a limited amount of conservation-related internships and conservation corps crew leader roles.

Artist Year, another Americorps affiliate, places citizen-artists in underserved public schools to strengthen their arts programs. Artist Year defines citizen-artists broadly: an artist could be someone with keen musical talent, solid photography knowledge, someone with a bachelor’s or master of fine arts degree, someone with amateur theatre experience — the list goes on! If there’s something in the arts that you’re expert enough in to teach to children or young adults, this program could be for you.

International Programs

All Hands and Hearts is an international disaster relief program with work sites in the U.S. and across the world. The organization leads community structure rebuilding efforts (e.g., schools and hospitals) after natural disasters. Current efforts include rebuilds for areas affected by Hurricane Dorian in the Bahamas and the 2015 earthquake in Nepal. The organization provides both immediate disaster relief and ongoing rebuilding support — collaborating with local stakeholders — for many years after disasters occur. Volunteers provide their own transportation to and from the volunteer host country. The program provides accommodation in a dormitory as well as three meals a day. Volunteer commitments may range from one to six months or more because project lengths and needs vary by site.

Omprakash.org curates and vets international volunteer opportunities that meet high standards of social impact, resource use efficiency, volunteer experience, and responsiveness to applications. You can use their search database to find opportunities according to subject area and location. Note that the majority of organizations listed with Omprakash cost money to volunteer with. When I checked out the database, I saw daily costs ranging from $10 to $30. Most listings I found expect volunteers to provide their own food and accommodation in order to allow more resources to go back to the agency. Upon finding a listing you are interested in, you will then apply directly to the agency. All agencies listed in Omprakash agree to respond to volunteer applications within two weeks.

These suggestions = are just a start — there are thousands of ways to spend a service year. Make sure you find a program with a mission that you connect with and whose work uses your unique gifts. No matter the type of work or location, your decision to offer your time through a service year will give you an opportunity to make a real difference in the lives of marginalized people who are suffering from poverty, addictions, abuse, and lack of opportunity. And you just might learn something about yourself along the way.

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