Be Useful

Volunteer Jane Genovese listens as Oluwafunmilayo Isebor reads a book to her. Photo: GiGi’s Playhouse.

Five places that could use your help

By Susan Nolan

Maybe the holiday season left you with a strong desire to pay it forward or give back. Maybe your New Year’s resolution was to improve the world around you. Maybe the MLK Day of Service brought out a strong need to make a difference in your community. Whatever the case, and whatever your availability and interests, hundreds of charities need your time, energy and know-how. Keep reading and you will find a small sampling of local non-profit organizations putting out an APB for people eager to make the world a better place. 

Seeds 4 Success

Escalating crime in Annapolis’ public housing neighborhoods led community members to form a grass-roots organization to address the needs of young people growing up in poverty. Fourteen years later, Seeds 4 Success is still serving at-risk youth. 

“We serve youth in 3rd through 12th grades living in low-income housing here in Annapolis,” says Kéla Ballard, program manager. “We pair kids with adult volunteers for one-on-one mentoring and tutoring. A child might work with one adult for mentoring and another for tutoring or one volunteer might serve as both for that child. Individual needs vary,” says Ballard. 

Because volunteers are working closely with children, a background check is required, as is orientation. “We offer trainings for our volunteers on different topics, too. In the past, we’ve held workshops on reporting child abuse, suicide prevention, goal setting, and teenage brain development,” says Ballard. 

Ballard seeks to grow the ethnic diversity within the team of volunteers. “We serve Black and Hispanic kids, and we’d like to have more volunteers representative of those communities,” she says. “We have a strong need for bilingual volunteers. A lot of the kids we work with come from homes in which the parents speak Spanish only. We need volunteer translators to help communicate with parents one-on-one and at programs and events. In return, this is an excellent opportunity for a volunteer to practice their Spanish.” 

Seeds 4 Success also manages a foster grandparent program. Unlike other volunteer opportunities, foster grandparents receive a small stipend funded by the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS). The tax-free stipend is not considered wage and does not factor into income or affect the recipient’s eligibility for services. “Our foster grandparents have to be at least 55 years old and meet a low-income eligibility,” says Ballard. “Once they have completed training, they work in the schools to provide children with educational support throughout the school day.”

According to Ballard, reliability is one of the most important qualities she seeks in volunteers. “Children are a vulnerable population, and so we need people who are going to stick around and form lasting relationships,” she says. “It’s amazing how special those can be.” 

To learn more about becoming a volunteer or applying for the Foster Grandparent program, visit:

Photo: American Chestnut Land Trust.

American Chestnut Land Trust

“The work can be physically demanding,” says Autumn Phillips-Lewis, land manager at the American Chestnut Land Trust (ACLT). “But our regular volunteers are dedicated and up to the task.”

Established in 1986 to protect the shared land within the Parkers Creek and Governor’s Run watersheds in central Calvert County, ACLT has grown into one of the premier leaders of land conservation in southern Maryland. In addition to managing the land as a public resource, they provide educational and recreational opportunities—and they rely heavily on the labor and know-how of their volunteers.

Volunteers at the American Chestnut Land Trust do everything from removing invasive plants and maintaining trails to participating in wildlife diversity surveys and water quality testing. 

“Right now, our greatest volunteer need is at our farm,” says Phillips-Lewis. The trust owns and operates Double Oak Farm in Prince Frederick. Using environmentally friendly and sustainable farming methods, the farm grows thousands of pounds of fresh produce annually and donates it to St. John Vianney’s Interfaith Food Pantry. Volunteers are needed to sow, weed, water, mulch, and harvest the vegetables and fruits. No experience is necessary. Staff and current volunteers are happy to share their knowledge of environmentally conscious farming.

Not all volunteer jobs are so labor intensive. “Our volunteers also help with office work and outreach. They staff our booths and hand out information at events,” says Phillips-Lewis.

Whether they are clearing a trail after a storm or assisting with a mailing, all ACLT volunteers reap the same rewards: “camaraderie and knowing you are working to improve the environment,” says Phillips-Lewis. “Our volunteers are all working to make a real difference locally.”

A volunteer application and a list of ways in which you can get involved can be found at:

Photo: Gigi’s Playhouse

GiGi’s Playhouse in Annapolis

GiGi’s Playhouse has been around for 19 years, but in Chesapeake Country for just four. “Enthusiastic families saw a need,” says Annapolis site coordinator Judy Co, “That’s why we have a GiGi ’s Playhouse in Annapolis today.”

The Chicago-based non-profit is named for founder Nancy Gianni’s daughter, and with 55 locations, GiGi’s Playhouse is on a mission to change the way the world views people with Down syndrome. “Before GiGi ’s opened in Annapolis, our closest locations were in Raleigh, N.C., and Hillsborough, N.J.,” says Co. “We now serve over 600 families from this location.”

“We serve people with Down syndrome from birth through adulthood by providing programs and educational opportunities and we rely on volunteers for everything,” says Co. “Everyone has something to give.” 

“If you have a talent, share it. We can use it. Dancing, sewing, cooking, yoga, puppeteering.” Co says. Currently, GiGi’s Playhouse is actively seeking a volunteer to head up their chess club and to assist with GiGi Prep, a career development program for adults scheduled to begin in February. 

While education and experience are needed for volunteers working with clients in the one-on-one math and literacy programs, Co emphasizes a desire to help is all one really needs to make a difference. “Bring a bagged lunch and just sit down next to one of our clients. Talk with them. Help them build their communication skills. Be a friend.”

While many people wait until they are retired to volunteer, Co says her organization accepts volunteers of any age, “Some of our best volunteers have been teenagers. Getting to know other people their age helps our teenage clients feel more confident socially.”

Administrative and fundraising help is also needed. Programs, classes, and services are free to clients, and GiGi’s Playhouse is funded by donations and fundraising events, such as their annual golf tournament and gala. “There are so many ways to get involved,” says Co. 

Find them at:

Photo: Historic London Town.

Historic London Town & Gardens

Visitor Services Coordinator & Collections Manager Rachel Rabinowitz has a long job title and many responsibilities at Historic London Town & Gardens, a colonial era historic site located in Edgewater. Among those tasks is recruiting and training the corps of volunteers who lead tours and help with the behind-the-scenes administrative tasks that keep the site up and running. 

“We have an active group of volunteers who work in the garden, too,” Rabinowitz explains, “But they work with our Director of Horticulture, Meenal Harankhedkar.” 

Historic London Town & Gardens is a 23-acre park located on the South River and divided into two equally important and distinct sections: a beautifully landscaped garden with scenic vistas and meandering footpaths and a historic area centered around the circa 1760 William Brown House. 

“My ideal volunteer has a passion for the site,” Rabinowitz says. “Whether they’ve only been here once or a hundred times, we really need people who love this place.” 

While many of the volunteers come to London Town with an extensive knowledge of history or gardening, Rabinowitz says they will gain even more. “Our docent training program is a combination of study and experience. We have materials to be read and they have to go on tours with staff and experienced docents.” Once on the schedule, docents are expected to keep up with new information about the site. Twice a year, a mandatory volunteer training is held.

Additionally, volunteers are encouraged to attend the workshops and lectures offered by the site. “We have a variety of history and gardening programs, so there’s always the opportunity to learn more.”

More information can be found at:

Project ECHO & Project ECHO Thrift Shop

Homelessness is everywhere, even in Calvert County. In 1992, the Ecumenical Council of Calvert County sought to do something about that. What started as a task force became a 16-bed shelter within a year. By 2010, it had grown into a residence large enough to house 40 men, women and children. 

Now, in addition to providing temporary shelter at their Prince Frederick location, Project ECHO has a permanent, shared-living boarding house program and operates two Oxford Houses, housing for people recovering from addiction. The Oxford House for women is located in Sunderland, while the Oxford House for Men is in St. Leonard. 

“We always need help,” says Rita Misago, assistant to the director. 

A recent college graduate, Misago has been working at Project ECHO since June and she has already seen the difference volunteers make at the shelter. “Our volunteers sort and organize donations. They do laundry. They prepare meals.” 

She credits her boss, director Lori Hony with being “a community builder.” “Lori is the type of person who is good at getting things done. So, if someone says they want to help, she finds a way to use their help.” 

Project ECHO has an ongoing need for volunteers to monitor the shelter, assist residents and prepare and serve meals. Basic building maintenance and tutoring and mentoring residents are also jobs performed by shelter volunteers. 

Like most non-profit organizations, Project ECHO relies on monetary donations and fundraising to keep the doors open and the services accessible to those in need. Volunteers are instrumental in coordinating fund-raising events, such as the annual Turkey Trot held every November.

In 2017, Project ECHO took a leap towards fiscal independence by opening its own thrift and gift shop at 885 Main Street in Prince Frederick. Under the direction of Teressa Mullen, development director, volunteers run the shop. 

“The shop is only open three days a week, but we have volunteers here every day,” says Mullen. “There’s always something to do, and we have a good time doing it.” 

Operating a thrift shop requires the same work as any other retail operation. The cash management, merchandising, customer service, and marketing are all handled by volunteers, but as Mullen points out, that as a store selling secondhand goods, sometimes additional expertise is needed. “Our volunteers do research,” she says. “Sometimes, we get donations of old toys, artwork or musical instruments and they turn out to be worth more than we initially thought and so we sell them for more. We want the customer to get a good deal, but we are also making money for the shelter.” 

Mullen describes the atmosphere as fun and friendly and says forming lasting friendships is one of the benefits of volunteering. “We are big on holidays. On Halloween, we all wear costumes. We are a very social group and over the years, we’ve become friends.” 

Shelter and thrift shop volunteer Luis Burgos agrees. “I also benefit from Project ECHO by meeting and interacting with lots of truly good people, learning from both customers and residents each and every day, seeing the smile on the face of a child who I helped to find just the right toy.”

Burgos, a former police officer and federal employee, has volunteered for numerous organizations over his lifetime. “Maybe it’s selfish to say, but it gives me a good feeling to help people.”

Learn more at: