Gifts With Meaning

Omaha organizations seek volunteers to make holidays a little brighter for others 

The holiday season signals the hunt for the perfect gift to give that special someone, family member or friend. But for many Omaha organizations, the holidays are a time when needs increase. Harsh winter weather can spell trouble for families in need of warm jackets – or a hot meal. Other families need help ensuring Santa arrives on Christmas Eve.

Families can embrace the season of giving by giving back to local charities. Giving back is not always about offering a financial donation. Instead, many organizations ask for the simple gift of time and a willingness to help. For other organizations, giving back is as easy as rounding up gently used items.

We’ve rounded up five Omaha organizations that can help you and your family give back this season. Each offers unique ways to make a difference in our community, during the holidays and year-round.

Open Door Mission

When the weather gets colder, needs often increase. Candace Gregory, president and CEO of the Open Door Mission, estimates the homeless shelter serves over 10 percent more meals through the winter months – an extra 300 meals on top of the 2,000 meals the organization typically serves daily.

The increase in demand requires an increase in manpower. “With the holidays upon us, it means you need more volunteers,” Gregory said.

Volunteers are needed to prep and serve food, sort and hang winter gear, and offer a friendly face to those in need. “So many of the people that we serve are hurting and broken when they come through our doors,” Gregory said. “To have someone that’s smiling when they come thru the doors says right away that they are loved and cared for. I think it makes a huge difference.”

Open Door Mission is also collecting new toys for its Project Santa project. The program aims to distribute 6,000 toy bags before Christmas to children in need. Volunteers are needed to sort toys and bag them before they are distributed. On Saturday, Dec. 20, volunteers can help hand out toy bags, gift books and other items to low-income families.

More than 14,000 volunteers annually engage with the Open Door Mission. Without their help, the organization would be unable to serve so many people in the community. “We are very grateful to the community for their generosity,” Gregory said. “There is no way we can do what we do every day or during the holidays without the generosity of the community and the faithfulness of our supporters.”


Nebraska Humane Society

Every year, about 10,000 animals are adopted through the Nebraska Humane Society, the fifth-oldest animal shelter in the U.S. Volunteers are a critical part of making sure animals find a loving home.

“Volunteers are our lifeblood,” said Pam Wiese, vice president of public relations and marketing. Volunteers walk dogs, clean cages, play with cats, man the gift shop, foster animals, and counsel prospective pet owners.

All told, hundreds of volunteers logged nearly 80,000 hours in 2013. But those volunteers report they get more than they give. “They are enriched as much as the animals are by the experience,” Wiese said.

At the animal shelter, volunteers perform the vital role of helping animals get exercise and socialization, helping their physical and mental well-being. The interaction helps animals de-stress. Even sick cats tend to recover faster when they have frequent interaction with people, Wiese said.

Volunteers also foster families to take animals into their home temporarily. For example, a foster family might care for a mother cat and a litter of kittens until they are ready to be adopted. The one-on-one time with a foster family helps shape the animals’ personalities, too.

“A lot of times when our foster kittens and puppies get back, they’re socialized,” she said. “They’re friendly and happy.”

In December, individuals can “adopt a pet” from the humane society’s giving tree and donate items that animal could use, such as toys or needed medication. The humane society also accepts gently used towels, blankets, beds and other pet supplies.


Ronald McDonald
House of Omaha

The simple act of preparing and sharing of a meal can make a difference for families who are experiencing possibly the hardest time in their lives. The families who stay at the Ronald McDonald House in Omaha house are away from home for weeks or months at a time while their child receives medical care. The volunteers who provide families with home-cooked meals are also offering a piece of normal life during a stressful time.

“It helps provide that sense of normalcy to families when they come here,” said Jennifer Tyler, director of programs and outreach. A home-cooked meal not only nourishes the body, it nourishes the soul that families can continue to the next day to provide support for their child, she said.

The Ronald McDonald House has served families from 43 states and three countries during their time of need. Up to 20 families can be at the house at one time. The average length of stay is 41 days, but some families stay much longer while a child receives treatment in Omaha.

Volunteers can assist in planning or coordinating evening activities and supplying and cooking meals. Their work can help make a difficult time easier for a family.

“Our goal is to help relieve that financial burden, and help keep (families) together during their greatest time of need,” Tyler said.

Kids and adults alike can make a difference by collecting pop tabs, soup can lids, and pet food lids. Groups in Omaha collect enough pop tabs to pay the electricity bill at the Ronald McDonald House for an entire year.

Throughout the year, Ronald McDonald House Charities organizes fundraising events to support its program. Groups of volunteers are needed to pour wine at the December “12 days of Brixmas” event at Brix in Village Pointe. The wine tasting event includes a $5 donation to benefit Ronald McDonald House Charities.

The charity is also in need of new winter coats and gear for families who did not anticipate staying through the winter months.

Junior League of Omaha

A good book can transport a child to a magical imaginary world. But many children do not have the option of reading a favorite book at home. It’s a scenario Junior League of Omaha is trying to alleviate.

“We found out that a lot of kids didn’t have books at home, and we really wanted them to have that favorite book they could pull of the bookshelf,” said Jen Alloway, president of the Junior League of Omaha.

The League began collecting gently used children’s books in 2011 and distributing them to children through local organizations. Over the years, the “A Book of My Own” program has given away over 50,000 books for babies, children, and young adults. In 2014 alone, the organization has distributed nearly 10,000 books.

“Our goal is to have every child who can benefit from a book have one to take and call it their own,” said Sarah Lopez, chairwoman for the program.

The vast majority of the distributed books come from community members. Businesses, churches, schools, or organizations host book drives to collect gently used children’s books. Individuals can drop off gently used books at three Omaha locations. Volunteers are needed to help sort the books and distribute them via 38 Omaha organizations.

Alloway said the excitement is palpable when children receive the books. “Their faces light up when you tell them, ‘You can take the book home with you,’” she said.


Omaha Project Linus

Omaha’s early cold snap has meant more organizations are calling Omaha Project Linus for help. Part of a national network, Project Linus brings handmade blankets to children in need. Over the course of the organization’s 11 years in Omaha, the organization has given away 53,000 blankets to children in the greater Omaha-Council Bluffs area.

Project Linus blankets have gone to pediatric units and to children of deployed soldiers. They have gone to adopted children and children in foster care and children who have lost a parent. Regardless of the circumstance, the blankets offer both physical and emotional warmth. The fact that a stranger cared enough to make a handmade blanket means something, said Ginny DeBates, Project Linus coordinator.

“From what we hear, the blankets make a huge difference to the kids themselves and to their families,” she said.

Those who have donated blankets include expert quilters and children. The project is a great way to get children involved with giving back, Bates said. Even young children can make a fleece tied blanket. “You plant that seed young, and they feel how good it feels to help somebody else,” she said.

Project Linus also can use gift certificates to fabric stores to aid a dedicated group of sewers in making more blankets. The organization also accepts donations of extra fabric or yarn.

As Christmas approaches, DeBates expects calls from organizations requesting blankets to increase. “The need doesn’t ever go away, but around Christmastime our need goes w

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