Holiday charities, service projects proceed despite pandemic


The holiday season is often the time of the year when people feel most selfless. Charities and churches all over the world ask for donations to help the less fortunate, and people excitedly participate in service projects.

Volunteering in Utah

This season of service was only amplified when Elder David A. Bednar announced the Light the World initiative in 2016. Further encouraging people to give selflessly, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints set up “giving machines” last year that enabled people to donate money to local and global charities. The machines alone provided nearly $40 million in donations by Christmas Eve 2019.

Unfortunately, the Church could not install “giving machines” this year because of the pandemic. However, charities throughout Utah County are adapting to 2020’s unique circumstances and offering ways for people to serve and donate in their community.

Community Action Services donates food, clothing and hygiene products to people in need. Tom Hogan, the program’s associate director, said the organization has adjusted some of its procedures to accommodate local guidelines.

“We have closed down our walkthrough pantry to keep our clients and volunteers safe,” Hogan said. “We now have our volunteers prepare food orders based on each family’s size and individual needs. Clients then pick up their orders from the volunteers.”

There are several ways people can reach out to others during the holiday season. Some people volunteer, other people donate (Nathan Wanlass).

Hogan said they take temperatures of each volunteer and require masks, gloves and social distancing. There have been fewer volunteers this year than normal, but Hogan said this is primarily because of pandemic limitations.

“Volunteering is ingrained into the DNA of every Utahn,” Hogan said. “When faced with an out-of-control situation, people want to be part of the solution.”

Hogan’s observation seems to hold true. According to a 2018 federal study by the Corporation for National and Community Service, Utah was the highest-ranked state for volunteer work in the nation. This was the 13th consecutive year Utah has held this title. In 2018, about 51% of Utahns had performed community service.

This number may drop in 2020 because of the pandemic, but local hospitals and charities are gearing toward remote service projects and online donations. For example, Intermountain HealthCare is requesting people make medical play dolls to teach children about their procedures.

Remote opportunities work for people who are immunocompromised or concerned about COVID-19, but some organizations are starting to open their doors to more volunteers who want to serve in person.

The Food and Care Coalition, a private nonprofit in Provo, had to eliminate all volunteer work for most of 2020. Since June, the organization gradually increased its volunteering capacity, which now lies at about 80%. Morgan Bergstrom said this transition wasn’t initially seamless.

“It was also challenging at first figuring out how to best implement coronavirus safety strategies, but after a few weeks of it, it became routine and no longer as difficult,” Bergstrom said. “Volunteer groups have been much less reliable during the pandemic since more people means there is a higher chance someone can’t come in, which becomes an issue scheduling-wise.”

Bergstrom said the Food and Care Coalition has seen a decrease in older volunteers because of fear of the pandemic, but the organization’s strict adherence to state health guidelines has made most people feel safer and more willing to serve.

“The issue we have had during the holidays is not a lack of volunteers, but a lack of capacity to meet the demand for service while still following COVID-19 guidelines,” he said.

There are many different service opportunities in Provo. These four options are closest to campus (Nathan Wanlass).

Volunteering at BYU

According to Bergstrom, a significant portion of the volunteers they get are college-age. This is in part because of BYU students’ dedicated attitude toward service in the community. BYU’s motto is “Enter to Learn, Go Forth to Serve” after all. Students often have opportunities to get involved in service projects, even during the pandemic.

Y-Serve is the primary structural service program at BYU. With COVID-19 limiting most physical interaction and gatherings throughout the year, Y-Serve Director Chris Crippen and his team have made it their mission to “inspire service” in the BYU community. 

“We have found that students are looking for interaction with others, and service can fill that void,” Crippen said. “Serving can help us look at our troubles with a fresh perspective.”

Though holiday service is limited because of COVID-19, the Y-Serve team is emphasizing the mission of the Light the World initiative for 2020. This fits their goal for students to perform “independent remote outreach” within their community.

“The Light the World website can give you plenty of inspirational ideas to do on your own. You can find service resources and charities to donate to,” Crippen said. “You can also receive texts with daily service prompts so you don’t forget.”

While holiday donations and service are a primary focus for many students, year-round service projects through Y-Serve are starting to open for the student body again. To comply with COVID-19 safety guidelines, most of the opportunities are solely virtual, but some projects are still allowed to happen with social distancing and mask-wearing. Crippen said he was impressed by the student’s willingness to help out.

“One great service event happened in October called Share Your Hair,” Crippen said. “Our female students have donated their hair for medically-related hair loss patients to have wigs. We had 266 donors contribute this semester, which equated to roughly 300 to 400 feet of hair.”

While organized acts of service can be helpful and extraordinary, Crippen said students shouldn’t just think of service as a holiday event. He said everyone should be looking for ways to help their neighbor every day. Y-Serve particularly encourages people to communicate with people they don’t talk to often, especially elderly family members and people with disabilities. 

“We need to make service a lifestyle,” Crippen said. “Every morning you should get on your knees and pray to be an instrument in God’s hands, then get off your knees and find those opportunities to serve others. It’s miraculous how you start to recognize what’s under your nose.”

For more information on how to get involved in serving others year-round, go to Y-Serve to see what opportunities they offer.

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