In a study released last week by the Corporation for National and Community Service, Utah ranked No. 1 in the nation for volunteerism, a title it has held for 11 years in a row. Broken down, this means that 43 percent of Utahns volunteered over the last year, raking up some 170 million hours of service, which translate to an economic benefit of $3.8 billion.
I've been lucky enough to lead a life that is fairly devoid of tragedy and struggle. While I do my best to acknowledge this good fortune and give back to my community, after spending the past few weeks getting to know the people behind some of the state's most dedicated charities, I'm in serious need of a swift kick in the ass. These are people who look right in the face of a seemingly insurmountable problem like homelessness or domestic violence and say, "We're going to end you. It might not be today, it might not be tomorrow, but we will not rest until we have wiped you out."
While many people's minds turn toward what they can do this holiday season to help those less fortunate—and I strongly encourage you to consider helping out any one of these organizations—I found it extremely heartening to know that the people behind these charities are out there every day, using their limited resources to work literal miracles in the lives of those who are most in need of them.
You'll notice that I've included each charity's website beneath their name; that wasn't an aesthetic choice. Please visit each site in order to learn more about each organization and find out how you can help.
Utah Food Bank
The Utah Food Bank is one of the state's oldest charities, and it's still doing great things today. Since its origin in 1904, UFB's mission has been to provide food to the alarming number of people who are in need (according to its website, one in seven Utahns is at risk of missing a meal today, and one in five Utah children is unsure where their next meal will come from.) Think this is an exaggerated sentiment? During 2015 alone, the food bank distributed more than 30 million pounds of food.
It's a number that Chief Development Officer Ginette Bott is extremely proud of. "This service is especially valuable for the working poor—who I call the 'working hard.' These are people who are working two or three part-time jobs that don't pay much money," Bott says. "With people in this situation, when all their bills are paid, food is the last thing that they can buy—and that's where their local pantry comes in." Bott has been involved with the food bank since 1993 and has been on staff since 2009. "When I retired from my corporate job, I decided to finish my working career at the food bank, because I'm so passionate about hunger and child services in the state of Utah," she says.
Signing up for the volunteer shifts that run from Monday-Saturday is an easy process, and the food bank has accepted so many volunteers that shifts need to be booked a couple of months in advance. "Last year, we logged over 85,000 hours of volunteer time; they're very important to help us reach our goals," Bott says.
Volunteering here is a process that lends itself to many different activities. Working at the warehouse, sorting food into delivery boxes and helping out with special projects are only a few of the duties that folks can help with. One of UFB's biggest events is the Human Race, a 5K that takes place on Thanksgiving Day, with all registration proceeds going to aid the less fortunate. "This is our 11th annual race," Bott says, "and our one time of year that we invite the public to come together in a public fundraising opportunity."
Best Friends Animal Sanctuary
I started volunteering at the Best Friends Utah Kitten Nursery about two years ago as a way to combat the copious amounts of stress that my previous job saw fit to inflict upon me. My thought process was that I could either get some therapy or spend a few hours a week bottle-feeding kittens. It was a pretty easy choice.
Spawning from humble beginnings inside an RV trailer, the kitten nursery was developed as a resource to help with the high cat population in Utah's animal shelters. Adult cats can usually hack it in a shelter, but kittens have a much lower rate of survival if they don't have someone to tend to them around the clock. When statewide shelters or animal control officers find litters of kittens that have been abandoned, they bring them to the nursery where a small army of volunteers, interns and veterinarians help these fuzzy little orphans make it to an adoptable future. Last year, the nursery saved more than 1,400 kittens, and has a goal of saving 1,500 this year.
Best Friends doesn't mess around with its volunteers. In order to earn their stripes, all potential candidates must attend an onboarding class, make it through two shifts with trained interns and pass a test that proves they have what it takes to become a bona fide kitten feeder. While the training sessions can feel overwhelming, nothing quite measures up to the first time you pick up a tiny orphaned kitten, feed it until its belly fills up like a water balloon and watch as it purrs itself to sleep in the palm of your hand.
Sure, this experience helped alleviate my workplace stressors, but it also showed me how much good a few dedicated people can actually do. The staff members make sure everything is running like a well-oiled machine, and they do a lot to support their volunteers—as if unlimited kitten play wasn't enough. The fact that the nursery runs 24/7 also gives volunteers an extremely flexible schedule, which makes it easy to set aside a few hours a week to help out.
Fourth Street Clinic
When we hear about Utah's homeless population, it's typically accompanied by words like epidemic, criminal and chaos. Though these terms can sometimes be accurate descriptors of our state's homeless reality, it also happens to make those who are struggling to make ends meet conveniently invisible to those who are lucky enough to have a roof over our heads. After my visit to the Fourth Street Clinic, it became easier to see our homeless population the way the doctors, pharmacists and other volunteers view them: as a group of people who need all the help they can get.
I arrived at the clinic around 8 a.m., and there was already a sizable number of people lining up for treatment. According to Development Director Laurel Ingham, the clinic admits 10 new patients every day and receives around 32,000 visits per year. "Our goal is to make sure this community gets the services that it needs on the healthcare side so that they can move into housing," she says.
Fourth Street Clinic started in 1988 with one part-time nurse who saw patients in order based on the severity of their illnesses. Over the past 28 years, it's grown to include a staff of neurologists, cardiologists, dermatologists, ophthalmologists and audiologists. "We have an on-site family practice and we also have a whole group of volunteer doctors," Ingham says, "and almost everyone who comes through gets a mental-health screening."
Admittedly, I didn't quite know what to expect during my tour of the facility—yet another embarrassing misconception that I had subconsciously brought in with me—but the place looks and feels like any of the medical clinics that I've visited. The staff is extremely friendly and driven, and many of them help the clinic provide wellness classes that teach patients how to take care of themselves once they are discharged.
In addition to the facility itself, Fourth Street also employs an outreach van to visit patients who are either too far from the clinic or are otherwise resistant to coming in for treatment.
As the tour wraps up, Ingham takes a moment to address the idea that people become homeless because they're irresponsible and lazy. "It's just not true," she says. "They're always on the move—standing in line for shelters, for food and for healthcare. It's one of the busiest groups of people that I know of."
Utah Domestic Violence Coalition
While a study from the Bureau of Justice Statistics revealed that cases of domestic violence or intimate-partner violence have decreased from 2014 to 2015, it also reported that cases of sexual assault and rape have increased. As these particular instances of violence are extremely traumatic to the victims involved, the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition strives to maintain its mission of "creating a state where domestic and sexual violence are intolerable."
The coalition itself is a network of shelters and outreach organizations that work in tandem to provide assistance to victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. Ann Johnson, the communications and development director for Peace House (PeaceHouse.org), one of the coalition's members, points out that "domestic abuse knows no social, racial, educational or economic boundary."
Founded by community leaders who were shocked when they heard that a woman was murdered by her husband in a parking lot within Park City's boundaries, Peace House has been a community asset for the past 20 years. Not only does Peace House offer shelter to those in need, but its list of programs provides all kinds of benefits to its guests. "We send prevention educators into Summit and Wasatch county schools to teach students how to be safe," Johnson says. "Through our outreach program, we are able to meet with those who are in abusive situations but who do not, for any number of reasons, want to live at the shelter." Resources provided include helping victims develop an exit strategy and offering clinical therapy to adults and children.
In addition to its day-to-day operations, the organization outs together two charity events that largely depend on volunteer services: Its "Spring Luncheon," typically held right before Mother's Day, and the "Bling Fling Boutique" that takes place during the second weekend in November. "We collect gently used women's and men's accessories throughout the year for our annual boutique," Johnson says, adding that "a large cadre of volunteers works throughout the year collecting, marking and sorting the donations in preparation."
Reflecting on her previous work as a journalist and her current role, Johnson says working at Peace House allows her to fulfill two personal needs: "To write and be an active participant in moving social justice forward. Peace House is a true charity—it saves lives."
Centro de la Familia de Utah
There are many issues facing local Latino families—especially those that are undocumented. Despite the challenges that lie in their path, the bottom line is that most of them come to the U.S. in order to do backbreaking work and build a better life for their children. Since that is much easier said than done, the Centro de la Familia de Utah (CDLFU) exists as a resource the help families like these along the way.
One of the many programs that CDLFU offers is a series of family classes in partnership with Kearns High School. I paid a visit to one of these classes and spoke with instructors Vivian Garcia and Polly Salmon about the program, which tackles obstacles that could get in the way of family communication. On the evening of my visit, for example, Garcia and Salmon explained that they would be teaching about rewarding or ignoring certain behaviors, along with empathy and gender stereotypes. "This program teaches communication skills around the family," Garcia says.
The classes feature individualized instruction for both teens and parents, along with a combined session where families can discuss the evening's curriculum together. "In Spanish-speaking countries, the parents have all the power," Garcia says. "When they get here, because of the language barrier, the power is shifted away from the parents to the kids."
Helping strengthen the bond between children and their parents is also something that CEO Gonzalo Palza emphasizes. "Half of the Spanish-speaking children are underperforming in schools," he says. "One of the reasons for this is because their parents cannot engage with them in the early stages of their development because they don't have access to the formal programs that we offer."
During the 10 years of Palza's tenure as head, several of the Centro's programs have been streamlined for better outreach to Utah's Latino families. "As an ethnic group, they probably have the largest productivity in terms of hours worked, they're very loyal to their employers and they have strong ties to their families," Palza says. "These are attributes that represent a strong social fabric, but they also come with poor education levels and they're internally divisive."
My experience with CDLFU was indeed eye-opening, but I think Garcia sums up her experience nicely when she says, "With all the immigration crap going on, and all the othering that takes place, these people still work hard, and I'm so happy to be able to help them."
Matrons of Mayhem
Entering the First Baptist Church to participate in the Matrons of Mayhem Third Friday Bingo, I'm promptly greeted by a lovely lady clad in black and gold, looking like Cleopatra with just a bit more testosterone. She introduced herself as Poundcake, at which point I asked to meet Miss Petunia Pap Smear, causing me to become acutely aware that I was in for one hell of a night.
Pap Smear is the alter ego of Courtney Moser, a community organizer originally from Logan. "I organized dances, camping trips and movie nights for the LGBT community up there—it was just stuff I liked to do," he says. "When we moved down here, I thought that was done and that I could retire—not so much though."
He and the other Matrons of Mayhem—the name was given to them by a reporter in Ogden—organize and emcee their Third Friday Bingo in order to raise money for different charities. "The causes search us out," Moser says. "They have to be a 501c3, and once they pass that bar, they write a description of what they want the money to go to. In December, we choose the causes that we'll raise money for."
The Matrons began as part of a group called the Cybersluts until they parted ways around 10 years ago. The Cybersluts held bingo nights as part of a weekend retreat for HIV patients and their families at Camp Pinecliffe. "They had so much fun doing it that they brought it down to the city," Moser says.
I've been to a few fundraisers in my day, but none of them had the energy and entertainment value that the Matrons of Mayhem provide during one of their bingo nights. For every $5 donated, attendants get a bingo card and a shot at winning some of the locally donated prizes—tonight it happened to be afghans, turkey platters and tickets to the Pet Shop Boys for one lucky winner. Throughout the game, the Matrons can call party fouls, which require the offender's entire table to dance for tips that also go to the evening's chosen charity.
For Moser and the Matrons of Mayhem, it's a chance to mix fun with a good cause. "I've always liked costume parties," he says. "I like dressing up and being in character—we're more close to being clowns than being drag queens."
Adopt a Native Elder
All of the charities listed here are excellent ways to help those in need, but there's something about the way C.J. Robb, assistant director of Adopt a Native Elder (ANE) speaks about his organization that sparks a sense of adventure. Essentially, ANE provides an opportunity for donors and volunteers to help elderly members of the Navajo Reservation, which spans across the Four Corners area. "What our organization does is helps these Navajo elders age in their traditional way, and it prevents them from being forced into nursing homes where they are not comfortable at all," Robb says.
ANE's principal source of aid comes from assembling and delivering boxes of food directly to the elders on the reservation. "We do four week-long deliveries in the spring and four in the fall," Robb says. "You get to meet a lot of new people and get immersed in a new culture. The reservation is also in a very remote part of the United States, so it's a beautiful landscape that most people don't experience." When they're not organizing these deliveries, ANE also needs volunteers to help out on Tuesdays and Fridays at their Salt Lake City warehouse.
One of ANE's biggest events is the Navajo Rug Show and Sale that takes place every fall at the Deer Valley ski resort in Park City. "It's our 27th year doing the Rug Show," he says. "We generally bring in about $300,000 for the reservation, and the weavers take 100 percent of the proceeds home with them," Robb says of the event. "Nothing gets marked up, and the weavers set their own price." Due to its magnitude, the call for volunteer hours during the show and sale is huge—as many as 200 volunteers are needed to help pull it off.
In addition to contributing to the needs and well-being of Navajo elders, ANE also focuses on bridging cultural gaps. "Before the show opens, we bring in about 600 local school children who learn about the Navajo culture directly from the elders," Robb says. "A lot of the schools adopt elders, and the students raise money for them throughout the year." ANE also arranges for Navajo storytellers to visit their Salt Lake warehouse.
For those who are eager to help out, but might lack the time to volunteer, adopting a Navajo elder is always an option. "The commitment is $200 a year," Robb says. "People don't realize that a lot of these elders—who are in their 80s and 90s—a lot of them starve or freeze to death during the winter, so providing them with food and firewood really does save lives."
As someone whose educational and professional career has dealt with literacy at some level, I love the fact that Startup Santa is a charity focused on collecting and donating books to children in need. It all began two years ago when Beehive Startups founder Clint Betts partnered with the United Way after coming across a statistic pointing out that local low-income families have one book per 300 children, while middle-income families have 12 books per one child. "Even worse," Betts says, "two out of every three children living in low-income families don't read at a proficient level—that's a big deal because you can tell a lot about a child's future based almost solely on their third-grade reading level."
When he approached the United Way of Utah County with this idea, it forged the beginning of a successful and charitable partnership. "We have deep relationships with businesses throughout the state, and we have helped get them involved with Startup Santa," says Amy Bosworth, United Way of Salt Lake corporate relations director.
Betts thought that Utah's booming tech industry along the Silicon Slopes would be a good place to establish a beachhead for this particular movement. "Startup Santa allows us to rally our community together during the holidays to give back and serve underprivileged children and families," he says.
Getting involved is extremely easy—and you don't have to be an established company to do so. "Any company or even a group of people can sign onto the leaderboard to rally around getting books for kids or make contributions," Bosworth says. In order to become a collector for this charity, all an organization needs to do is sign up on Startup Santa's website and start collecting books. Each group tallies up the number of books they've collected, drops them off at the nearest United Way location, and adds their tally to the leaderboard to compete with other participants. "There are options to sign your company up to donate books, money or to read at local elementary schools," Bosworth says.
Moving forward, the plan is to keep Startup Santa focused around gathering books and increasing literacy among underprivileged youth. "Startup Santa will focus solely on this problem until it's solved," Betts says. "I look forward to the day when Startup Santa can redirect its attention and resources to a different issue because every child is literate and has access to books—we have a lot of work to do."
Ching Farm Rescue & Sanctuary
In 1998, Faith and Mike Ching established a sanctuary for farm animals in order to protect them from a life that doesn't necessarily fall under the jurisdiction of anti-cruelty laws. As farm animals are typically bred to be slaughtered or used as labor, they don't tend to get the attention that domestic animals enjoy.
Current tenants of Ching Farm include llamas, pigs, steers, goats, sheep and even emus. While they encourage educational tours and farm-based volunteer work, the place is no petting zoo. The purpose of the Riverton sanctuary is to provide a safe place for the animals under their care; that includes a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to any sort of disrespect including making "meat jokes" about residents.
"We believe that our advocate work can help change perceptions of farm animals and create a deeper respect for [their] rich emotional lives," their website says.
Outside of making sure their animals are well taken care of, Ching Farm also organizes events like November's Compassionate Thanksgiving—a fundraiser that gives attendees a taste of vegan Thanksgiving options. They also organize yard sales throughout the year, with all of the proceeds going to help take care of the farm animals.
Volunteers are always welcome—it's a great way to put that elbow grease to work while making life a bit easier for the diverse group of animals that have found a home at the farm.
The Chings say they receive no government grants or funding, meaning they exclusively rely on donations to cover their $5,000 monthly feed costs. So consider ditching the daily latte habit and filing one of their resident's bellies instead. A $30 donation feeds 47 goats, sheep and llamas for a day, while $70 provides a stable of senior horses with the special food they require for one week.
Utah Nonprofits Association
When it comes to administration, outreach and keeping the lights on, nonprofits are just as difficult to run as business organizations. The fact that nonprofits rely on grants, public service and fundraising to generate revenue only makes their establishment more difficult. That's where the Utah Nonprofits Association (UNA) comes in. "As a statewide organization, Utah Nonprofits Association works to strengthen the nonprofit organizations that strengthen our communities," CEO Kate Rubalcava says. "UNA does this by providing cost-saving benefits to our members, training and technical assistance, and advocacy training and engagement opportunities with elected officials."
UNA works best for those who are brand new to the world of nonprofits. They offer an extensive library of resources and staff that help new nonprofits get off the ground, along with several opportunities for professional development and budgetary guidance. Essentially, they exist to help passionate organizations navigate the complicated world of starting a charitable organization—not much can get accomplished if a nonprofit is tied up in red tape.
As they continue to grow, Rubalcava is confident that the organization will continue to help those who help those in need, a priority. "In 2017, we will continue to communicate with our elected officials about the important role nonprofits play in bridging the gaps in services left unfulfilled by government and business," she points out. "UNA will also continue to offer training to nonprofit professionals across the state so that they may have increased capacity to serve the missions of their organizations."
For those of you looking for a way to give back to your community, any one of these organizations is well-deserving of your time and efforts. Get some people that you love together, find a cause that you feel passionately about and contribute—it's the one thing that is guaranteed to keep you warm throughout the holiday season.