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Helping others for holidays, all year long

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Charitable organizations like the Salvation Army and Meals on Wheels offer volunteer opportunities year-round. (Source: salvationarmyusa.org/MGN) Charitable organizations like the Salvation Army and Meals on Wheels offer volunteer opportunities year-round. (Source: salvationarmyusa.org/MGN)

(RNN) - Service organizations work to provide food and comfort to people in need during the holidays. They also work to accommodate the spirit of giving year-round.

Representatives for Meals on Wheels and the Salvation Army said they have roles that can be filled by people with any time to spare. Both groups offer opportunities to fill a direct need in the community and to see the tangible effect it can have.

"What volunteers say to me is that I came here to help give, but I have received more than I could ever hope to give by seeing the gratitude of those assisted," said Major Ron Busroe, Salvation Army's national community relations and development secretary.

Busroe plans to spend Thanksgiving at the Dallas Cowboys game to commemorate the organization's Christmas drive kickoff. But he spent most of his 35 years with the group serving the homeless that day.

He said the spirit of giving is always at its peak during this time of year, and there have even been instances of more volunteers than opportunities. But he added someone can always help those in need, even if it's not the holiday season.

"What we say is we have Salvation Army for 365 days a year," Busroe said.

Sharon Baughman, CEO of Meals on Wheel of San Antonio - Christian Senior Services, said she has seen a gradual growth in the amount of people who need help getting enough food. The organization averages 3,700 meals delivered per day - nearly 1 million per year.

"People are living longer, which is great," Baughman said. "But sadly, more people in our community are impaired, so they are needy. The people that we serve are essentially home-bound; it's difficult for them to shop, cook and meet basic nutritional needs."

According to Meals on Wheels, 1 million meals are served per day to seniors through 5,000 local nutrition programs in the U.S. About 8.8 million seniors, or one in seven, face the threat of hunger.

Jenny Bertolette, communications director for Meals on Wheels Association of America, said the across-the-board federal cuts by the federal government in 2013 made a sizable dent in their funding. According to the group's sequester survey summary in June, $51 million was cut from the Older Americans Act Nutrition Programs, and they must rely on private donations to "fill in the gaps."

"The programs have gone through a lot with sequestration," Bertolette said.

Salvation Army has a base in every zip code in the country, and Busroe said the group would help more than 2 million children during Christmas season. One million of those would be aided through the Angel Trees, located in malls and other stores, which have ornaments that show the first name and age of a child, along with clothing size and holiday wish list.

Busroe suggested people bring their kids with them to get them involved in helping others who aren't as fortunate.

"If you have children, go to the Angel Tree and find kids the same age as they are," he said. "Go shopping with the children, so they can learn to give."

Many of the famous red kettles are run by volunteers, and people can set up online kettles to raise money. Other opportunities with the group are found with toy drives or the food pantries that help provide 4 million people with Christmas dinner.

And if you cannot find a place in need of people on the holiday, Busroe said you can always come the day after, and any day after that, to help serve a homeless person.

"If you have a particular skill, financial planning - budgeting or other life skills you've gained - we have homeless families who need a mentor or coach with those life skills," he said. "Those are not tied around the holidays."

Baughman said Meals on Wheels of San Antonio usually gets a full team of volunteers for its annual Thanksgiving Day delivery. They often get a drop in the number of people from early December to mid-January.

"We invite families that may want to deliver over the holidays that can't during regular days, even though it may be a short-term commitment," she said.

Deliveries broke down to nearly a 50-50 split between volunteers and paid delivery drivers. Baughman said that was a percentage they were always trying to improve to better use the resources they have.

She talked about the connection to the community that volunteers experienced. For some, it's the feeling they get from staying mobile and helping people, others enjoy participating as a family and teaching their kids the reward of service.

"Everyone says this, but it's true - it's more than just a meal," Baughman said.

To find a Meals on Wheels program in your area, go to www.mowaa.org.

For a Salvation Army program, go to www.salvationarmyusa.org.

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