Hands On Greater Portland connects volunteers to opportunities; the holidays are a busy time for volunteering.

TIMES FILE PHOTO - Jessica Borg volunteers for Put Down Roots in Tualatin in Ibach Park. At many workplaces, the winter holidays bring about a slower pace and a lightened workload. That isn't the case for Lizzie Houns.

As a program manager at Hands On Greater Portland, it's Houns' job to connect potential volunteers with volunteering opportunities in Washington County. And as soon as stores put up festive decorations, carols play on the radio and kids start finalizing their wish lists for Santa, her inbox starts filling up.

"It's so wonderful to see the projects on our calendar fill up, and to have so much outreach from people calling and emailing and asking, 'How can I serve a meal?' or 'How can I make a donation?'" Houns said.

It isn't difficult to understand why this is a boom time for volunteering — as the holidays prompt folks to consider what they're thankful for, the importance of family, and their religious values, it's only natural that interest rises in helping those who are less fortunate.

And in Washington County, opportunities to do just that are plentiful. Hands On Greater Portland maintains a web calendar chock full of chances to volunteer in both Multnomah and Washington Counties, and they include kid- and family-friends options.

"For someone who maybe doesn't have a close connection to a particular nonprofit, our project calendar has projects every single day, where people can sign up as an individual, as a group, as a family," Houns said. "You might pack food at the food bank one Tuesday evening, and then on Saturday morning you might be cleaning up at a park."

Nonprofits and charities like to publicize with Hands On Greater Portland, which is run by the United Way of the Columbia-Willamette, because it has an online community of about 13,000 active volunteers, Houns said. But much of that base isn't always interested in Washington County opportunities.

"Based on volunteer opportunities we have throughout the year, I do think sometimes Washington County opportunities aren't as popular, just because the bulk of our volunteer community tends to live in Portland," she said.

For those who do live in Washington County, there are a wide range of volunteering options available. In Beaverton, knitters and crochet enthusiasts can meet once a month at the Beaverton City Library to make warm caps and blankets for infants. The fruits of the volunteers' labor are then passed on to local hospitals and clinics, including Virginia Garcia Memorial Health Center.

The program, called Knit for Newborns, is "pretty social, and it's an opportunity to craft together," Houns said. "People are able to develop their craft, and make beautiful little items that are passed on to families with newborns."

In Tualatin, local group Put Down Roots in Tualatin plants trees and other botanicals that are good for the local environment.

"It's an opportunity to get outside and plant trees, and to learn about the ecology of your area and the city, and learn about the effect good and bad plants can have on the environment," Houns said.

And in Tigard, Project Homeless Connect provides resources like health and dental care, clothing and food for homeless people. The program started in San Francisco, and has since spread to many towns in the Portland area.

"It's a really gratifying one for our volunteers," Houns said. "I get a lot of really wonderful feedback about Project Homeless Connect. And it's growing — I think there might be one in Beaverton next year."

While Houns said she is grateful for the increased interest in volunteering this time of year, she also asks that people try to incorporate volunteering into their lives year-round — and to find an organization that does work that resonates with them.

"Don't just do the obvious thing," she said. "Don't just serve a meal or work at the food bank, but put a little work into checking out which nonprofits are in your general area that are looking for a different kind of volunteer, and maybe a longer-term commitment. ... Things like that are wonderful, and we encourage people to keep that going and continue to volunteer throughout the year, and not just at the holidays when it's on people's minds."

Blair Stenvick
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