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Hot on the Web

Using the Web to give back

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on February 9, 2007
(Issue 2506, DIY Under the Hood)

Volunteering our time and knowledge is one of those few issues folks from across the political spectrum can still agree on: It's a good thing.

Whether it's helping the folks in New Orleans rebuild after Hurricane Katrina or working at a food bank in your local community, the need for volunteer effort always outweighs the supply.

Finding something at which you can make a palpable contribution to a cause you believe in?

Hey, the Web is here to help.

Rebuilding New Orleans

A year and a half after Hurricane Katrina wiped out entire swaths of New Orleans, much of the city remains in ruins. Many low-income residents simply couldn't afford full-replacement homeowners insurance – many rental units were likewise underinsured.

The USA Freedom Corps, a sort of domestic Peace Corps, is a federal program to help people who want to volunteer find programs that need them.

On the home page is a link to "Hurricane Relief." Seemed simple enough. But while there were more than 180 volunteer opportunities listed here, few were recent or seemed likely to still be relevant.

Better luck was found by using the pull-down menu to indicate what kind of volunteer work one might be interested in (civic/community) and then a state. This brought up only 114 volunteer opportunities in helping rebuild New Orleans, but all seemed current and relevant – from helping Habitat for Humanity rebuild people's homes to helping out the American Red Cross.

VolunteerMatch is another site for helping folks find a way to help by putting them in touch with groups needing volunteers. Like the Freedom Corps site above, VolunteerMatch is organized much as a job bank site (think - organizations can come in and post "openings," to which volunteers can apply.

The one challenge is that the site is really organized to help people volunteer in their own immediate geographic communities: If you want to and are willing to go where the need is greatest, you have to know the ZIP Code for that area.

So if you want to go to New Orleans or elsewhere in Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas that were devastated by Katrina, you have to know that ZIP Code. (Fortunately, typing in "New Orleans" and "ZIP Code" into Yahoo or Google brings up plenty of quick solutions to that issue.)

Doing so brought up more than 160 active volunteer opportunities – including one-week stints helping Habitat for Humanity well into the summer. So if you want to spend a week of your summer vacation helping someone else get their life back in order, this site makes it easy.

Helping out locally

As mentioned, though, VolunteerMatch – with its ZIP Code-based search engine – is really tailored for helping folks volunteer right at home.

Searching within 5 miles of my home brought up 27 opportunities, about half of which were truly local. (Apparently, those categorized as national show up in every search.) From providing legal assistance to a shelter for battered women to serving as a docent at the Escondido Children's Museum, there were a broad variety of opportunities.

Perhaps the most useful part of this is that after registering for a free account, you can volunteer for these openings online – simply click on the "I want to help!" button that is on every volunteer opening and you can then send a message to the agency that posted the opening: List your expertise, hours available, ask a question, etc.

Faith-based volunteering

In the United States, churches spend more money and provide more volunteers to the poor than all the layers of government combined.

In fact, some years, Catholic agencies alone provide more assistance to Americans in need than the federal government. Add in all the other Christian groups, plus Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Native American and other religions doing their part, and the faith-based sector is easily the most active in our society.

Catholics looking to volunteer now have an online resource from the Diocese of San Diego's Office for Social Ministry. Called e-link, the site allows you to either sign up for a monthly e-mail newsletter or simply read the monthly bulletins off the Web site.

It's decidedly low-tech, and many of the volunteer opportunities are more philosophical than assistance-based. It's all consistent with Catholic teaching, as well.

And so while you can find opportunities to get involved in domestic violence prevention or help provide a nice Christmas for low-income families, there are also a lot of listings for things like anti-abortion or pro-immigration advocacy.

But there are enough opportunities each month that any Catholic will find something they can feel good about helping out with.