15 Ways Families Can Serve in the Triangle

Spend quality time together helping those in need
Photo courtesy of the Food Bank of Central & Eastern North Carolina
Kelly Lynn Mulvey, Adam Hartstone-Rose and their kids volunteer at the Food Bank of Central & Eastern North Carolina.

Volunteering can be a great way to teach the values of thankfulness, responsibility and compassion to children of any age. It also offers families a way to spend quality time together doing something filled with purpose and meaning. The challenge comes with families choosing how and where to serve while organizing everything else going on in their busy lives. 

The Triangle’s growing population creates a variety of needs for which volunteers are in high demand. Here are 15 local volunteering opportunities families can participate in together, or children or teens can individually take advantage of. 

1. Habitat for Humanity

Every fall or spring Saturday, Habitat for Humanity of Durham offers youth build opportunities for children ages 8-15. The organization’s safety regulations do not permit youth under age 16 to be on sites with power tools, so Laine Staton, volunteer program manager at Habitat for Humanity of Durham, finds creative ways to involve children while parents work on a build site nearby. 

“Laine used to be a middle school teacher so she comes up with great projects for the kids,” says Liz Healy, a parent of two teenage girls. “Habitat really wants the children to feel like they’re doing something that will impact the home, and they give them smaller projects so kids can see the finished product.” Such projects may include building picnic tables, parts of sheds, birdhouses and tile walls, for example. 

Healy also appreciates the relationships her family builds through volunteering with Habitat for Humanity. “We sponsor a house with our neighborhood and I love how we get to know the homeowner through the process. It shows my kids that people are just people,” Healy says.

To volunteer, visit durhamhabitat.org or contact Laine Staton at lstaton@durhamhabitat.org

2. Warmth For Wake

Warmth for Wake is sponsored by Wake County Human Services and offers seasonal energy assistance to Wake County residents during the cold, winter months. This happens through limited utility assistance for seniors, emergency space heaters and firewood outreach. One of Warmth for Wake’s most popular activities for volunteers ages 15 and older is splitting firewood October through March. 

“It appeals to a lot of folks who like to do something physical and be outdoors,” says Denise Kissel, resource development specialist for Wake County Human Services. Both individuals and groups are welcome to volunteer.

Kissel encourages families with younger children to get involved in other ways. “They can collect space heaters and deliver them to our clients,” she says.

To volunteer with Warmth for Wake, visit wakegov.com/humanservices/social/energy/pages/warmthforwake.aspx or call 919-212-7083.

3. Small Hands Big Hearts United

Cary-based Small Hands Big Hearts United was created so that volunteers of any age could find a service opportunity at a moment’s notice any time of the year. 

“Our mission is to nurture children’s instinctive compassion for others and the world around them,” says Executive Director Anita Pease. 

Volunteer opportunities are led by children and teens and have no financial or logistical barriers, as well as no age restrictions or time constraints. 

“All year round, we want to help our children and teens become an even kinder and philanthropic generation leading the world,” Pease says. 

The organization is comprised of six committees that focus on different areas of service. Projects are led by Triangle youth and focus on food banks, homeless outreach, community gardening, compassion for animals, earth conservation, caroling for seniors, writing letters to soldiers and international service. Visit shbhu.org to learn more.

4. Second Chance Pet Adoptions

If your child or teen loves animals, Second Chance Pet Adoptions rescues stray cats and dogs in the Triangle and attempts to find a forever home for each animal they help. Volunteers ages 16 and older can work alone, but a parent or adult must accompany those who are ages 12-15. Children younger than 12 can assist with cat socialization. 

“We truly appreciate when people come and play with the cats and remind them that people are good and loving,” says Rachel Cronmiller, development and communications manager at Second Chance Pet Adoptions. 

Other volunteer opportunities include fostering a cat or dog for a short amount of time until the animal is adopted. “This is a great way to introduce pet care, and the responsibilities involved, to young children,” Cronmiller says. 

Families can also help Second Chance Pet Adoptions with its Christmas gift-wrapping fundraiser held at Crossroads Plaza in Cary, which runs for two weeks before Christmas and ends on Christmas Eve. 

Debbie Deters has volunteered with Second Change Pet Adoptions for more than seven years, and she brings her nephews along as often as possible. 

“They always do the Christmas wrapping event with me,” she says. “One year we even dressed up as big presents and waved people in. The boys love it, and it’s a fun way to spend time together.” 

To volunteer with Second Chance Pet Adoptions, visit secondchancenc.org or call 919-851-8404. 

Courtesy of Second Chance

Participants at the Second Chance Adoptions Christmas wrapping event. 

5. Food Bank of Central & Eastern North Carolina

From 2-4 p.m. on the second and fourth Saturdays of every month, kids ages 5-11 can volunteer with their families during the Food Bank of Central & Eastern North Carolina Kid’s Days to sort potatoes and other produce, label items, and help organize inventory. 

“We love volunteering at the food bank because it gives us a chance to work hard as a family, doing things that help our community immediately,” says Kelly Lynn Mulvey, who frequently serves with her husband and two children during Kid’s Days. 

Outside of designated Kid’s Days, Tuesdays through Saturdays, ages 12 and older can help sort grocery store donations and fresh produce, as well as build senior and disaster relief meal boxes. 

“We help nearly 600,000 people who are food insecure in North Carolina, and we couldn’t do it without volunteers. They more than double our efforts,” says Mary Maxton Fowler, the organization’s volunteer coordinator. Adam Hartstone-Rose, who volunteers with his children, hopes their work at the food bank inspires his children to be service-minded adults. “We think that starting community service at a young age will hopefully encourage a life-long appreciation for serving others and helping the community,” he says. 

Visit foodbankcenc.org, email mrodriguez@foodbankcenc.org or call 919-865-3022 to learn more about these opportunities. 

6. UNC REX Healthcare 

For teenagers considering a career in the medical field, UNC REX Healthcare offers VolunTEEN. High school students ages 14-18 who have completed their freshman year may apply to the program. 

“The UNC REX VolunTEEN program provides an opportunity to learn, the possibility to share and the chance to care,” says Alan Wolf, manager of media relations at UNC REX Healthcare. 

VolunTEEN includes a highly competitive after-school program that runs from September through May, as well as a summer program for 10 weeks that begins in June and runs through August. 

“VolunTEENs in the after-school and summer programs are given the opportunity to work in a variety of positions that provide an important contribution to the care of patients and guests at UNC REX Healthcare,” Wolf says. VolunTEEN assignments are made based on the volunteers’ interests and include work related to patient care units, day care, recovery rooms and office support.

Interested teens can learn more at rexhealth.com/rh/volunteer/volunteen-program.

7. World Relief Durham

When refugees arrive in the U.S. they are often isolated from larger communities and lack a support system. World Relief Durham connects them to the services and people who can help rebuild their lives. 

“Our main emphasis is on long-term friendships where we partner families with families,” says Adam Clark, director of World Relief Durham. 

“Kids playing together is really a universal language and it helps refugees and immigrants overcome the fear of meeting someone new from a different culture,” Clark says. Because of this emphasis on pairing families, all ages are welcome to be a part of the volunteering process with World Relief Durham. 

The organization offers long-term commitments, including Friendship Partners and Good Neighbor Teams, through which volunteers show refugees emotional support and assist them with adjustments to living in the U.S. Tutoring refugee and immigrant children is also a long-term volunteer role. 

Shorter commitments, such as the “Welcome Team,” who greets a new family at the airport and provides the first warm, culturally appropriate meal, often work well for busy families who may not be able to make a long-term commitment. “This is a one-time opportunity that we hope leads to longer, lasting relationships,” Clark says. 

Visit worldreliefdurham.org to learn more.

8. Thanksgiving Dinners Program

The Triangle Nonprofit & Volunteer Leadership Center partners with the Durham Department of Social Services to offer the Thanksgiving Dinners Program, which provides meals to low-income families with the help of volunteers. 

“We are definitely in need of sponsors for meals this year because one of our major sponsors who supported 300 families is unable to help this year,” says Adrienne Clark, special programs director for Durham Department of Social Services. The Thanksgiving dinner program provides meals to nearly 2,000 low-income people in Durham who may also be disabled or elderly. 

Volunteers can either donate financially so the center can purchase meals, or they can sponsor a meal and deliver it directly to a family. 

“You can imagine there are a whole lot more families in need than we’re able to help, but we do our best, and the volunteers who sponsor are vital to the program,” Clark says.

To donate or volunteer with the Thanksgiving Dinners program, visit volunteercenter.org or email Adrienne Clark at adrienne@thevolunteercenter.org.

9. Share Your Christmas

Much like the Thanksgiving Dinners Program, the Triangle Nonprofit & Volunteer Leadership Center partners with the Durham Department of Social Services to support more than 3,500 low-income families through the Share Your Christmas program. 

“Day to day, these families have difficulties just making ends meet, and during the holidays, this is especially hard,” Clark says. “Many have to make tough decisions between food, medication and housing.” 

Volunteers can sign up to provide gifts for families by serving as sponsors. They receive the family’s wish list, then shop for and wrap the gifts. Volunteers can choose to deliver the presents directly to the families or drop them off at Northgate Mall to be distributed by a social worker. 

“A lot of people will want to sponsor families that have children that are the same age as their own,” Clark says. “That way, when they bring their children along to shop, it makes the experience more personal and tangible. We have stories of people that sponsor some of the same families from year to year and build relationships with them. We also have families that make it a community event and hold wrapping and donation parties with their neighborhoods.”

The Triangle Nonprofit & Volunteer Leadership Center starts matching families toward the end of September through Nov. 1. 

 “We set a deadline, but if we still have families that are unsponsored, we go beyond that date,” Clark says. Gifts are distributed the first two weeks of December. 

To sponsor a family, visit volunteercenter.org or email Clark at adrienne@thevolunteercenter.org

10. Wake Assisted Living Memory Care

The percentage of senior citizens living in the Raleigh-Cary area is growing at the second-fastest rate in the U.S., according to a recentForbes report. Many of these seniors end up in nursing homes and long-term care facilities, like Wake Assisted Living Memory Care. These facilities appreciate visits from volunteers, especially young children with parents. 

“Our residents rely on people to come in and talk with them to show them love and kindness because unfortunately many residents don’t have family to show them that kind of love,” says Lisa Lawson, the activity director at Wake Assisted Living Memory Care. “After children leave, I always hear my residents telling stories of their own children, and remembering life when they were younger. So it’s especially important in this population of memory care.”

Some of the activities volunteers might help with in nursing homes include running games like “Bingo,” “Brain Trivia,” “Family Feud” and “Guess the Song.” Volunteers make jewelry with the residents or color in adult coloring books. It depends on the day and what the activity director has planned.

Learn more at wakeassistedliving.com or by contacting Lawson at llawson.wakeal@gmail.com or 919-532-3495. 

11. Love Athens

Love Athens’ mission is to bring community members and organizations together to serve Athens Drive High School and its surrounding areas. 

“Our purpose has always been to meet the needs of the less privileged in our community, and we do this through free school supplies, cooking classes, low-cost Christmas stores and other events,” says CJ Stephens, director of Love Athens. “But increasingly the goal has become to celebrate the diversity of this community. Our hope is to simply create spaces where this diversity can come together and be celebrated.” 

One of Love Athens’ biggest events is its annual Christmas Celebration in December. The organization plays a holiday movie in the school’s auditorium, and kids can get their faces painted, play in bounce houses and have their pictures taken with Santa. 

“In addition to the fun, we host a low-cost Christmas store so families in need can purchase presents at a significantly discounted cost. This event could never happen without countless volunteers, and we are always looking for more to join in the fun,” Stephens says. 

Teenagers ages 14 and older can receive credit for school community hours by volunteering for Love Athens, and children of all ages are welcome to volunteer with a parent or adult guardian. Learn more and sign up for the organization’s newsletter at loveathens.org or by emailing team@loveathens.org.

12. Gigi’s Playhouse

Gigi’s Playhouse in Raleigh is a Down syndrome achievement center offering free programs for individuals with Down syndrome and their families. It’s 99% volunteer-run and offers volunteers a wide variety of service opportunities, including involvement in music and art classes, literacy and math tutoring, administrative duties, and event planning. 

“Lots of people choose to serve as program volunteers,” says Michelle Pfeiffer, outreach director at Gigi’s Playhouse. “They assist the leader and help with whatever the class is being taught. For example, the class might be running through an obstacle course and the volunteers would do it with them.”

Gigi’s Playhouse’s programs are designed for individuals with Down syndrome from infancy through adulthood, and volunteering opportunities are available every day of the week. 

“I love to volunteer at Gigi’s Playhouse, and seeing all of the kids and adults with Down syndrome having fun because of something I helped put together is really heart-warming,” says Ellery Huffman, a 12-year-old regular volunteer. “It feels so good to make others feel good about themselves and teach them that they are awesome.”

Learn more at gigisplayhouse.org or by email raleigh@gigisplayhouse.org.

13. Catholic Charities

Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Raleigh serves 54 counties in North Carolina, and offers services ranging from hurricane relief and providing groceries for food-insecure families, to assisting the homeless. 

“Volunteers are critical to the work we do,” says Daniel Altenau, director of communications for Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Raleigh. “Each year about 3,000 volunteers contribute over 50,000 volunteer hours. Their support allows us to expand our impact and help more people in need.”

Families are encouraged to volunteer together and Altenau emphasizes that people of all faiths are welcome to serve. 

“We serve individuals of all faiths and those with no faith tradition, and we have all kinds of volunteers,” he says. “Our approach is very ecumenical as we serve the community and we hope that our faith shines through in our compassion for the communities we serve.” 

There are three services offered by Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Raleigh that require the most volunteers. The Disaster Services ministry sends out teams of people to repair and rebuild after hurricanes and flooding, the Catholic Parish Outreach Food Pantry provides groceries for 8,200 individuals each month and the Oak City Cares ministry offers a place where individuals experiencing homelessness can receive services.

Learn more at catholiccharitiesraleigh.org or by calling 919-821-9750.

14. Ronald McDonald House

The Ronald McDonald House of Durham and Wake offers a comforting “home-away-from-home” and community of support for seriously ill children and their families. 

“We try to provide families with everything that we can to make their stay as comfortable as possible,” says Clay Ragan, volunteer program manager of the Ronald McDonald House of Durham and Wake. “This includes a room, shuttles to and from the hospital, meals, activities, and much more.” 

Throughout most of the year, volunteers of all ages are welcome, as long as anyone under the age of 18 is accompanied by an adult. However, during peak flu season, the Ronald McDonald House limits volunteers and visitors to ages 18 and older to protect guests. 

“Popular projects for families include cooking and providing meals for the house, baking afternoon treats and hosting fun activity nights,” Ragan says. Each project lasts for two or three hours and accommodates volunteer groups of 5-15, depending on the type of activity. 

“We also have a Wishing Tree initiative, where we accept donations of toys, bikes, presents for parents and other things that our guests can select as Christmas gifts,” Ragan says. 

Learn more at rmhdurhamwake.org/get-involved.


15. Care Bags for the Homeless

If time is scarce, families can consider making care bags for the homeless.

“Putting together a care bag for the homeless is a great way to include kids, even our littlest!” says Lindsay Stevenson, mother of two and the children’s ministry director at Ekklesia Church in Raleigh. “The issue of homelessness is nuanced, but this gives us a starting place for engaging our kids in conversations and actions that will hopefully build compassion and kindness in them as they grow.” 

Stevenson suggests including items such as bottled water, granola bars, peanut butter crackers, hand wipes, packs of travel Kleenex, ChapStick, toothbrushes, toothpaste, Band-Aids, gift cards, and notes or cards with hand-drawn pictures. “It requires very little planning and prep work. You could even create a ‘packing play date’ and invite friends to bring items that you could pack together,” Stevenson suggests. 

Simply pack them up and hand them out while waiting at a traffic stop. No email or website necessary. 


Mick Schulte is a photographer and Parenting Media Association award-winning writer in Durham, where she lives with her family of six and loves finding ways to make motherhood even more challenging than it already is.

Categories: Lifestyle, Things To Do