During the holiday season, many Mesa residents seek to give their time to worthy organizations in the community.
While COVID-19 has posed challenges in that arena, many local nonprofits have adjusted to offer volunteer opportunities fit for the times. Here are five options.
Branching Out Family Services
Counselor Cherrie Vierra-Lonkar founded Branching Out, along with her husband, psychologist and professor Dr. Brian Lonkar.
Her dream was to create a new approach to supporting families just like theirs. In addition to being behavioral health professionals, the Lonkars are both special needs and adoptive parents.
Branching Out Family Services offers a variety of programs and services to help foster and adoptive parents meet their goals while connecting them to other families like theirs.
In addition to counseling, coaching and referrals, they now offer therapeutic recreation programs, self-care and other services.
“I am both a foster/adoptive parent and a special needs parent,” Cherrie said. “When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I promised myself that if I survived, I would spend the rest of my days making the world a kinder and more supportive place for Arizona’s most vulnerable children.”
Lonkar has been actively involved in advocacy and education within the foster care and special needs communities as both an educator and a counselor in the Chandler/Gilbert area.
She encourages involvement as a volunteer with Branching Out now and at any time of year.
“Branching Out’s volunteers are the best,” she said. “They are the key to our success. …Our volunteers do everything from assembling goodie bags to doing administrative work, to wearing an inflatable dinosaur costume to bring joy to the children we serve. We are all about joyful childhood memories for these kids so we have a lot of fun.”
Monetary donations are the ideal way to give back for some and Branching Out’s Good Works Project qualifies donors for a state tax credit.
Humane Animal Rescue and Trapping Team
The Humane Animal Rescue and Trapping Team was founded by Cheryl Naumann, who has more than 20 years of animal welfare experience and served as the former CEO of Arizona Humane Society.
She has led efforts to trap lost animals in Maricopa County since 2012.
Cheryl recognized that there was a great need for the skill, equipment and patience required to rescue shy, skittish and injured animals in the field and founded HARTT to meet this underserved need.
“HARTT volunteers are those special people who see a lost dog and have to pull over and try to help,” she said. “They enjoy being in the outdoors and getting some exercise and are able to strategize on search areas and hang flyers in neighborhoods.
“Needs tend to arise on short notice but searches and flyer hanging can be done at any time of the day or night. We also always need foster homes, especially for our shy and older dogs.”
During these times of uncertainty and stress, pets bring comfort and joy – and rescuing a homeless dog brings huge reward, Naumann said.
“The holidays are a great time to become a volunteer, as we all feel the spirit of giving, and it’s extremely rewarding to give your time and efforts to bring lost or homeless pets to safety,” Naumann said.
“Lost dog searches are outdoor activities done in very small groups, and fostering happens in your own home - both very COVID-19 safe options.”
Scholl’s Helping Hands for the Homeless
Seven years ago, a group of women on Facebook were collecting donations to deliver to the homeless population in the Chandler/Gilbert community and they didn’t have a drop off location.
Enter the kindness of a stranger, Diane Scholl, who allowed them to use her address if she also could be involved in helping deal directly with homeless people.
“I went out with them and it was devastating to see – there was a huge need and I decided then and there to start Scholl’s Helping Hands for the Homeless.”
All her work is done outdoors or from the comfort of home, making it a safe and family-friendly way to give back this holiday season.
Needs range from donating items for holiday meals and pre-packaging hygiene kits for those living on the streets to donating gently used clothes, shoes, backpacks and even dog items.
Scholl even hosts volunteer days where homeless people can come and collect items or food they may need.
“Volunteers are extra special because I couldn’t do this alone. They go to the streets with me, make food, package hygiene kits – whatever is needed. COVID-19 has slowed us down some, but I have met some amazing groups and make sure our donations go out to those who are still hitting the streets on a regular basis.”
Information: facebook.com/schollshelpinghands1 or 602-619-5952
Sunshine Acres Children’s Home
Sunshine Acres Children’s Home, founded in 1954 and located in Mesa, can always use help.
“We are so blessed to have an amazing community that wants to either give their time through volunteering or through helping financially,” said Assistant Executive Director Shara Markwell.
“We love our volunteers and the many duties that they help with on our campus.”
On the 109-acre site is a learning center where volunteers can help children with their homework; a dining hall where volunteers can help wash dishes or keep everything clean; a horse program and 4H Club where volunteers can help with animal care; a donation center where help with intake is appreciated and a greenhouse where volunteers can help grow produce.
Markwell noted that a listening ear or a smiling face plants a seed within these children’s hearts and can potentially change their lives.
“I received a letter in the mail from a former Sunshine Acres resident who lived here with his siblings in the late 1950s. His brother had passed and he was reflecting on his life.
“He believes that the compassion and love that his brother exhibited in his life was due to the time he was at Sunshine Acres. Before he passed, they had many talks about how thankful they both were. That is the Sunshine Acres way.”
Love Connection Dog Rescue
Love Connection Dog Rescue founders Jodie Maggio and Kristen McCown have been rescuing animals for quite some time.
For Jodie, it was about starting her own rescue one day, so when the opportunity arose, she jumped in wholeheartedly. Kristen always had a special place in her heart for animal rescue and made for a passionate partner.
Love Connection started in November 2019, but in that short time, over 500 dogs have been adopted through the rescue, including behavioral, medical and senior pups.
Home checks and meet-and-greets are essential at Love Connection, so there is an assurance that each dog will go to a loving home.
If snuggling dogs is the ideal image of volunteering for someone, then Love Connection delivers this season.
“Our volunteers are so special to us because we are a foster based rescue, so without them, we wouldn’t be able to help dogs,” said volunteer Alyssa Bentley. “They are the heart and soul of the rescue.”
Duties include providing a safe environment while the rescue searches for forever homes.
“We also need fosters sitting in x-pens at events, walking dogs at events, setting up and breaking down at events, administrative work – the list goes on. The more volunteers we have the more dogs we can save,” she said.
She stressed that without fosters, the rescue would be unable to pull dogs from shelters and the streets.
Bentley recalls her favorite rescue story.
“We rescued a momma and three pups. One pup had Parvo and spent months at the emergency vet fighting for his life at only 6 weeks old.
“We never lost hope and finally got the message from the vet saying that he’s thriving, taking his liquids very well, eating, running around and playing – when we all saw that message, we put our phones down and cried, ‘Our baby was going to make it.’ Now he is adopted by one of the vets who took care of him.”