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EDITORIAL: Giving thanks, giving your time

It’s the season for giving thanks — and for simply giving.

The generosity of Southern Nevadans goes far beyond this long weekend’s gift shopping frenzy, which begins tonight for especially eager bargain hunters. The holidays compel citizens to reflect on their many blessings, to consider the plight of the growing number of people who are less fortunate, and to give their time to make this community a better place to live.

On Saturday, for example, volunteers from Wells Fargo and Wal-Mart handed out some 1,600 turkeys, along with food baskets full of side dishes, for the Las Vegas Rescue Mission. John Fogal, director of development for the mission, said it was by far the largest turkey giveaway to the needy in the four years he has worked there.

Volunteering is one of the most selfless and noble things a person can do. And there are literally hundreds of difference-making valley nonprofits in need of help.

But because so many Clark County residents wait until Thanksgiving or Christmastime to try to pitch in at charities, this outpouring of kindness can create a problem: many more volunteers than are needed at one time.

Pat Falvey, vice president for development at Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada, recalled in 2011 how one Thanksgiving, many hundreds of well-meaning Las Vegans showed up outside the nonprofit’s downtown dining facility offering to help however they could. Ms. Falvey said there were almost as many volunteers as people seeking a holiday meal. Even charities can have too many cooks in the kitchen.

Cass Palmer, president and chief executive officer of the United Way of Southern Nevada, says he sees the same surge of bigheartedness every year.

“The holidays definitely drive an increase in volunteerism. In an average month, we’ll see about 300 volunteers. During the holidays, over 1,200 people will sign up to volunteer through our website,” he said. And when that rush of volunteers comes, Thanksgiving Day opportunities at shelters and kitchens are often booked well in advance, Mr. Palmer says.

Catholic Charities will have at least 150 volunteers on hand today to serve some 1,500 Thanksgiving meals to the needy. Most of those volunteer spots were booked months ago. (Full disclosure: Review-Journal Publisher Bob Brown serves on Catholic Charities’ Board of Trustees.)

The valley is five years into its economic troubles, and throughout that time, providers have seen a steady increase in demand for social services and assistance. Food is among the biggest needs. The homeless, the poor and the jobless need to eat every day, not just around the holidays. The Las Vegas Rescue Mission, for example, provides shelter for an average of 200 homeless people per night, as well as 1,000 meals per day at its dining hall.

Leslee Rogers, spokeswoman for the Salvation Army, said valley churches will feed the homeless today, as well as provide indigent Las Vegans with haircuts and coats for the winter.

“We serve the needy 365 days per year. There are always offers of help at Christmastime and Thanksgiving, but the need is there year-round,” Ms. Rogers said.

As important as food donations and cash contributions are to local charities — through agreements with area supermarkets, Catholic Charities can purchase more food with your dollar than you can — it takes people to get this food to the needy. Catholic Charities serves between 200 and 300 people each day at its Hands of Hope Community Food Pantry. Stocking the pantry and helping its clientele requires five to 10 volunteers — every single day.

It’s a good problem that so many Las Vegas Valley residents want to volunteer their time right now. The challenge is getting people to act on their holiday benevolence by promising to volunteer in January, April, September and the months in between.

The United Way of Southern Nevada offers prospective volunteers one of the valley’s best resources. At the Volunteer Center’s website, volunteercentersn.org, citizens can register to become a volunteer and search service opportunities by interest, date or one of the more than 450 nonprofit organizations United Way works with.

“Let’s say you’re good at math,” Mr. Palmer says. “You can volunteer to be a tax preparer at a United Way Volunteer Income Tax Assistance site, even if you’re only available to help in the evening close to your home in the northwest valley. Through our website, you can drill right into an opportunity that works for you. … We want to be the community’s touch point for volunteering. We have hundreds of volunteer opportunities, all a button away. We just need the people to get involved, whether you have an extra hour or an extra day.”

Those interested in volunteering with Catholic Charities should call 385-2662 or go to catholiccharities.com. To volunteer with the Salvation Army, call 870-4430, ext. 117, or visit salvationarmysouthernnevada.org. To volunteer with the Las Vegas Rescue Mission, visit vegasrescue.org or call 382-1766.

Make a commitment to volunteer today. Confirm the need for your help. Recruit your friends and neighbors to join you. Then fulfill your promise — during the holidays and beyond.

A version of this editorial originally appeared in 2011.

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