The small, rural town where I grew up – and many towns nearby – had escaped the blight and decay that plagued so many others. The downtown area was a source of civic pride that hearkened back to a simpler time, something akin to It’s a Wonderful Life.
Naively, I thought poverty and need were things that happened somewhere else, like big cities or other countries, and surely not in a town like mine.
Finding a Hidden Need
That changed when I went to college. Just an hour south of my hometown, my new home was the quintessential college town. The student body was upper-middle-class and the atmosphere of the community was much like my own.
But there were differences, as I soon discovered. For one, there was the man who was a permanent fixture on the downtown-area streets. Day after day, there he was, in orange cargo pants faded to pink and unwashed hair.
Sometimes he had a leftover lunch someone had given him. Sometimes he just sat there. We all just passed him by, and I did too, because I wasn’t sure what to do. Did he have a home? Surely he’d been there so long that people knew and were helping him, right?
And there was the food pantry. Through my church and my student newspaper gig, I learned how it teemed with people each week, how people from across the county were guests, and how some students came, too.
The director of the pantry put it in the clearest terms when he told me during one interview, “There is poverty here. It’s just hiding.”
People Are People
It all clicked one cold Friday evening in March. I was volunteering at my church’s fish fry – free and open to all. The hall was filled with laughter from parish families and students.
And then the door opened, and in walked the man in the pink cargo pants. He hung his head, as if embarrassed to be there. Suddenly, our minister appeared and started to speak to him. I learned he had a name. Our minister ushered him into the food line, and we asked him if he wanted baked or fried fish. Fried. He spoke softly. He had preferences and a personality like anyone else.
He took his plate and sat, first alone, but soon surrounded by others. And I wondered how long it had been since he’d spoken to someone else, since someone had looked at him and treated him like the person he was. Here was a human being we’d all just ignored instead of understanding that he was no different from the rest of us.
How to Find Volunteer Activities in a Rural Area
Volunteering in a rural area can be challenging, first of all, because you may not be sure where to look. Or maybe you notice a need but don’t know if it’s already being addressed.
A local church can be a good place to start. They may run a charity program of their own, or have connections to those resources.
See if there’s a United Way group in your area or county. They can help you learn about service opportunities nearby.
My favorite way to volunteer, though, is through skills-based volunteering – finding an opportunity that can be done remotely that makes use of your talents and skills. Look online for accounting, PR, marketing, design, and business development opportunities at sites like Catchafire. Sharing your talents and gifts can make a big impact for small service organizations or nonprofits that don’t have the resources to hire someone.
Volunteer from Anywhere with Project Giving Kids (PGK)
Volunteering in a rural area can be a little more challenging, but don’t overlook the need in your own backyard. Because it’s there – and we can do something about it.
Don’t forget that the PGK site has a wide variety of volunteer opportunities your family can do anywhere, even if you don’t live in one of our “home” cities. Cards, clothing, donations and more can all be collected and then mailed to the proper place. Give it a try – just use “Anywhere” as the location in our activities search.