Let’s face it: We’re all pretty self-involved. The stores we visit, people we interact with, and decisions we make are typically pretty focused on how to make our own lives easier or better. But if you want to live in a happy and healthy community, you should be actively contributing to that environment. There are a ton of tiny adjustments you can make to your usual routine that will require minimum effort by you, but will have a maximum impact on your community. And if you do have time to spare, trading an hour of vegging out on the couch for volunteering can help boost your mood, your fitness level, and even your lifespan. Check out these 10 creative, powerful, and pretty fun ways you can give back to your community.
Shop Your Farmer’s Market
“Supporting a healthy local food economy may be one of the most impactful choices we can make, since local and organic food is a healthy choice for both your body and your community,” says Nathan Jones, lead consultant at the Northwest Institute for Community Enrichment (NICE), an organization that encourages community-based initiatives. Depending on availability and budget, shop at your town’s farmers markets or farm stands, look into joining a Community Supported Agriculture program (which is like a farm subscription box), and/or eat and shop at businesses and restaurants that carry/cook with local food products. Check the USDA National Farmers Market Directory to find the markets in your area.
Become a Volunteer Firefighter
“Fire departments are in need of more volunteer firefighters—especially physically well-equipped guys,” says Basil Sadiq, marketing associate for VolunteerMatch, an online resource for volunteer opportunities. Usually, you have to log training hours and have your EMT certification, so check in with your local department.
Mentor Young Professionals
Want to bring something unique to the table? Offer up what you bring to the office every day, suggests Kristin Schwarze Madgett, president of The LEAD Project, a Minneapolis-St. Paul-based organization that connects professional mentors with junior-level mentees. Volunteering your professional skills offers a chance for you to engage with your community in a unique and value-added manner since you’re nurturing the local workforce. But it's also an opportunity to flex your boardroom skills in a new way and build skill expertise, she adds. If you live outside the Twin Cities, check out United Way's young professionals offerings, or connect with your national professional association which often offer similar programs, suggests Madgett.
Clean up a Park
“America's parks are some of the most under-funded government programs in America,” Sadiq says. You can volunteer to pull weeds, paint park benches, or help clear paths so that they're accessible to runners, bikers, and hikers, he offers. Plus, studies show those who offer their time for Mother Earth are more active and physically healthy over 20 years than those who don’t.
Become a Boy Scout Leader
If your idea of a rocking weekend is making fires, pitching tents, and spending a night in the wilderness under the stars, consider trading time with your drinking buddies for leading a Boy Scouts troop. You get to teach them survival skills more valuable than iPhone hacks—and you score the perks of being a mentor, Sadiq points out.
Run a Race
Trade in your long Saturday run for an official race. There’s a 5K, marathon, or bike ride for just about any cause you may be passionate about. “It's a great way to raise funds and give back to your community while staying in shape,” Sadiq adds.
Become a Big Brother
“Community-based volunteer mentorships like Big Brothers, Big Sisters really resonate with anyone eager to give back in a sustained, personalized way,” Madgett says. The program—which is in 330 communities across the U.S.—will link you with a kid who is facing adversity of some kind and needs a buddy to take his mind off of it (and, of course, a role model to look up to). You can take your Little to a football game, teach him to play catch, or just hit museums or movies around town. By donating your big brother skills, you're helping build a future community full of happier people.
Amazon makes shopping easy, but if you buy your books, hardware, or nutritional supplements at a mom-and-pop shop, your money goes into a local business and strengthens the local economy, says Jones. Plus, when you stop in and talk to the employees, the local business can become a place where everyone knows your name, helping foster that greater sense of community.
Help Build a House
“Volunteer with an organization like Habitat for Humanity and help build a home for a family in your community that otherwise wouldn't be able to afford one,” suggests Sadiq. Bonus: The tasks you’ll probably be set to—like working on ladders, exterior scaffolding, painting, or heavy lifting—can teach you skills to put toward upgrading your own pad, and it gives you a pretty great workout along the way.
Coach a Youth Sports Team
You don’t have to be a dad to coach T-ball or peewee football. Check with your community center to see if any rec leagues need guidance—they’re always looking for volunteers to keep their programs running at a low cost to their members, says Andrea Ilagan, community manager at Idealist.org, an online resource to find social impact careers and volunteer opportunities. Plus, you get to help encourage a generation of kids to grow up active and set them up for a healthier life.