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Volunteerism is essential to the fabric of a community. But for someone without a history of volunteering, or someone who recently moved to a new town, it may be a little tricky to figure out how to get started. And of course, being that it’s still 2020, everything is different than it used to be. Maura Cook, senior director of marketing and engagement for the United Way of Central and Northeastern Connecticut, says first and foremost to think about how you want to volunteer and what interests you.

Pick a passion. While volunteering is an inherently selfless act, it’s still important to pick something you like. “If you come to us and you have an interest, we have so many opportunities that usually we can find something that will match up for you,” Cook says. “And if not, we can refer you to good places to look.” If you’re into the great outdoors, there are opportunities to spend time cleaning up a park. If you have a green thumb or two, volunteer to help build a community garden. Animal lover? There’s always a dog waiting for a walk or puppies and kittens that need fostering. Are you good with numbers and have basic tax knowledge? Volunteer income tax assistance programs need tax preparers.

Crawl before you walk. Treat your first foray into volunteering the same way you would treat the first day of a new exercise program. Have a goal, start slow and don’t bite off more than you can chew. It’s great to get into volunteering, but it’s more important that you stay in it. Don’t commit to something if you’re not sure you can see it through. Just because it’s not an official job you’re being paid to do doesn’t mean you’re not being counted on.

Be comfortable. Many people are still hesitant to be out and about and around other people. But for others it’s no big deal. Luckily for everyone, volunteering can be done in the community and at home. “Right now there are still in-person volunteer opportunities that are going on that are done very safely, that are done with social distancing in mind, that are taking very much into account CDC guidelines,” Cook says. “First think about, are you someone who can and who wants to volunteer in person or is a virtual opportunity potentially better for you.” If you’re willing to go out and about, the state’s food banks are always looking for people to make trips to the grocery store, deliver food to homes, and organize stock rooms.

Find a fit. United Way has a volunteer management system that houses more than 1,000 opportunities in Connecticut. It has also opened up its website for other area nonprofits to post their various needs. (Go to unitedway.org, then click “Get Involved” and “Volunteer.”) “If you don’t really know where you want to start, definitely start to poke around our database,” Cook says. Some of the 15 United Way branches in the state even have dedicated volunteer matchers that place people in suitable roles.

Keep at it. Charitable donations and volunteerism always get a bump around the holidays, but a new year doesn’t make for a clean slate for those who are underprivileged and underserved. “The holidays are a great time to get involved, but all throughout the winter and well into the spring nonprofits are going to have a lot of needs,” Cook says. “Get connected and find things. There might not always be something in November and December because slots fill up, but keep trying.”

More ways to give back:

Millennials are leading the way in charity and volunteering — and they’re changing the giving game.

Involved millennials and charity pros offer advice for how to get involved and make a difference.

Looking to volunteer? These local organizations can use a hand.

How you can do some good for others without added COVID risk.

These Connecticut charities will help your donated money or goods go further.

Still not sure which charity to give your hard-earned money? Ask givewell.org for suggestions.

Local organizations that need your donations.

Great ideas for helping older adults during the pandemic.

Some simple things you can do that spread joy and won’t cost you a thing.

Want to boost your own happiness and well-being? You can by helping others.

This article appears in the December 2020 issue of Connecticut MagazineYou can subscribe to Connecticut Magazine here, or find the current issue on sale hereSign up for our newsletter to get our latest and greatest content delivered right to your inbox. Have a question or comment? Email editor@connecticutmag.com. And follow us on Facebook and Instagram @connecticutmagazine and Twitter @connecticutmag.