Improve Your Karma in the New Year

Volunteering can fill your spiritual tank and be cool, too

For many Americans, it takes a tsunami to loosen the strings of their Donna Karan purses and hesitantly pull out a few tattered greens. But here in the Bay Area, the socially conscious are the ruling class, and most of us want to give money to everyone and everything that screams of exploitation and neglect. Many of us can't, though, because, quite simply, we're broke.

So, you wanna make a difference in the New Year without falling back on student loans or giving up three square meals? In a word: Volunteer.

There are so many places that desperately need your help it can be hard to know where to start. But here are a few of the city's most tightly run nonprofit ships, which offer all sorts of opportunities sure to give you good karma all year long (and, perhaps, even spice up your resume). Short on time? Even an hour a week goes a long way.

Storytellers and people with theatrical leanings might give Street Side Stories a call. An arts education nonprofit that cultivates the voices of young people through the power of storytelling, Street Side Stories volunteers go into underserved middle schools and encourage disadvantaged kids to write their own autobiographical tales. Often the stories get performed (at places such as A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books or Porchlight) or printed in Street Side's own anthology. Volunteers can help tough tykes craft the stories, photograph the readings, or edit the anthologies. "It's fun and sometimes funny and sometimes even poignant, because these kids are telling you exactly what's going on in their world," says program director Britt Bravo. Contact: 864-5221 or www.streetside.org

Another organization that hooks up volunteers with kids in need is 826 Valencia, the writing nonprofit started by novelist Dave Eggers and teacher Nínive Calegari. Improving literacy is the point of 826, and its programs are wide-ranging. It offers after-school tutoring services at its home base in the Mission and in-school, one-on-one tutoring with students ranging from learning disabled pre-adolescents to college-bound teens. The nonprofit provides essay-writing assistance, book-making projects, playwright workshops, journalism instruction, and more. Students also have the opportunity to get their work published in professional anthologies. "When will a high school kid write six drafts of an essay?" asks Calegari. "If they know it's going to be published by Isabel Allende!" Volunteers run the gamut: writers, teachers, attorneys, grad students, and those pursuing a teaching career in San Francisco. (826 fills the "volunteer" prerequisite to enter the teaching credential program.) And there's great flexibility -- you can make major commitments or just sign up for programs on days you have free. Contact: 642-5905 or www.826valencia.org

If you're a visual artist looking for volunteer opportunities, Precita Eyes is a brilliant choice. Founded in 1977, the mural-making nonprofit is responsible for some of the city's most engaging public art. The idea is to bring people together (from master artists to kindergartners to corporate execs) to create larger-than-life, community-centered storytelling murals that cover entire walls of public and private buildings. "We try to put out positive messages, painting a picture of unity, teaching people ethics or morals," says teacher/muralist Fred Alvarado. It's a huge undertaking, and the operation survives, in part, by volunteer staffers who assist with classes, make crafts for Precita's store, and help paint new murals and restore old ones. "You don't need to be Diego or Picasso to do this," says Alvarado. "You just need to have the will to paint and be open to instruction." Contact: 285-2287 or www.precitaeyes.org

If you want to get your hands dirty in a spiritual way, slide on over to Glide. The Glide Foundation provides a host of incredible services for underserved communities: It runs the largest free-meal program in Northern California, a free health clinic, free legal services, 52 units of subsidized housing, and a shelter-bed referral site. This says nothing of their multi-ethnic, multidenominational church services on Sundays, which attract a group more diverse (and more stimulating) than a random collection of Muni bus riders. There are dozens of ways to get involved; Glide needs 60 volunteers a day to run its meals, medical, and legal programs. "You may wake up in the morning and like the reflection you see in the mirror," says executive director Tod Dunbar Thorpe. "But if you start coming here, you're going to like that reflection a whole lot more." Contact: 674-6080 or www.glide.org

Another spiritually connected gem of a social services organization is Jewish Family and Children's Services. JFCS offers Holocaust survivor programs, couples counseling, low-cost non-denominational counseling, and transitional housing for battered women. Volunteers can help in all manner of ways, but two of JFCS's most innovative community programs are its Senior Companion and On the Mark programs. The first partners families or young people with isolated seniors to share a weekly coffee or walk. "You become a part of somebody's life," says Rachel Kesselman, Volunteer Coordinator at JFCS. "It's really an enriching thing for the volunteer, especially if you don't already have someone older in your life." The On the Mark program is a mentor program that pairs youth in need with big brother/sister-type role models who can provide advice, emotional support, or after-school help with homework, and take their kid-pals to baseball games and museums. Both programs cater to all ethnicities and religions. Contact: 449-1288 or www.jfcs.org

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