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Between the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and weeks of blustery winter weather, chances are, you've been spending extra time indoors. And if you're anything like us, you've already organized your closet, streamed the first season of Bridgerton (and read the entire book series), mastered the virtual happy hour, completed a 2,000-piece puzzle (twice), and baked more sweet treats than you can possibly eat. Enter: virtual volunteering.
As a result of social distancing, many organizations have shifted from in-person activities to engaging volunteers remotely—so there are plenty of meaningful volunteer opportunities that you can do from your couch. You can lend a supportive ear at a crisis hotline, translate important medical information into other languages, assist those with visual impairments with everyday tasks, transcribe President Theodore Roosevelt's letters, and even help protect vulnerable wildlife. Plus, the recipients of your generosity won't be the only ones getting a lift; studies have shown that giving back, whether through community service or random acts of kindness, is one of the best ways to boost your mood—which, let's be honest, is something we could all use right now.
Ahead, we've gathered the best virtual volunteer opportunities you can do remotely—from tutoring kids, teens and high school students in marginalized communities to providing refugees and asylum seekers with linguistic support—all of which will stir up some positive change.
Familiar with Kurdish? Fluent in Somali? Tarjimly—which means "translate for me" in Arabic—is a nonprofit with a free app that connects immigrants and asylum seekers with multilingual volunteers who provide on-demand linguistic support via live chat. To date, it's kept more than 17,000 people (think: a Burmese speaker visiting the ER in Tulsa, an Iranian refugee signing up for food assistance in Los Angeles, an aid worker delivering essential items to a Spanish-speaking family in Houston) from getting lost in translation.
Translators without Borders
Another way multilingual folks can help break (language) barriers: Translators without Borders. Every year, the nonprofit's volunteer translators help more than 200 aid organizations—including UNICEF, Doctors Without Borders, and Oxfam—with a wide range of projects, from building a database of 12,000 essential medical terms in 40 languages to making Wikipedia’s 80 highest ranked healthcare articles available in 80 developing world languages to translating videos and leaflets specifically related to COVID-19 prevention, treatment, and care.
Thanks to the United Nations, you can make a world of difference—without even getting out of your pajamas. Each year, its online platform pairs more than 12,000 volunteers—who specialize in a wide range of areas, from outreach and advocacy to research, writing, and editing, to teaching and technology development—with U.N. partner organizations that are working to end poverty, build peace, and advance gender equality.
By The People
Want to help set the record straight? By the People is a crowdsourcing initiative from the Library of Congress in which citizen archivists transcribe thousands of documents too indecipherable to be read by machines and scanners—including Mary Church Terrell's diaries, Walt Whitman's poems, and President Theodore Roosevelt's letters—as well as add keyword tags to assist future searches and review transcriptions by other volunteers for accuracy.
Be My Eyes
The Be My Eyes app has a clear vision: to connect with people who have visual impairments who need assistance with everyday tasks—checking an expiration date, picking out the right spice, locating an item at the drugstore, identifying a piece of mail—with sighted volunteers through live, 1-on-1 video chat. Since the free app launched in January 2015, more than 4 million good-hearted helpers have lent a hand—and a pair of eyes—to over 285,000 people.
Learning Ally wants all students to be on the same page—which is why the ed-tech nonprofit has built a library of more than 80,000 high-quality audiobooks for struggling readers in elementary, middle, and high school (from classics like The Rainbow Fish and The Baby-Sitter's Club to new favorites like Trevor Noah's Born a Crime and Jason Reynold's Long Way Down). To help expand its reading material, there are a few ways to get involved: You can check nearly-completed audiobooks for any problems with navigation and synchronization, as well as typographical errors; you can listen to new recordings and provide feedback on things like like fluency, tone, and audio quality; or you can even narrate fictional stories and textbooks (note: auditions are required).
Did you know a huge number of cities around the world remain unmapped? This isn't just inconvenient, but in the case of a crisis, it's also dangerous—which is why the American and British Red Cross, the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team, and Doctors Without Borders partnered in 2014 to launch Missing Maps. The collaborative project enlists volunteers from around the world, who use satellite images to put digitally uncharted territories on, well, the map. (Not a geographic genius? Don't worry—Missing Maps provides straightforward video tutorials for beginners.)
Older adults have always been at an increased risk for loneliness and social isolation—but perhaps even more so amid the coronavirus pandemic. Enter DOROT, a New York-based nonprofit that offers a variety of intergenerational activities and services, including Caring Calls. The recently-launched program matches senior citizens with younger volunteers for a series of weekly Zoom calls that are both positive and powerful.
Reviewing and classifying underwater images of fish, transcribing weather data from the deck logs of 19 World War II ships, counting the number of birds in your backyard—these are all ways you can give the government a hand. The website citizenscience.gov includes a catalog of more than 200 active, federally-funded crowdsourcing projects, ranging from from easy-breezy (virtually walking through neighborhoods in Seattle, Columbus, and Mexico City to evaluate them for wheelchair accessibility) to hands-on data gathering (catching monarch butterflies and caterpillars and testing them for harmful parasites)—but none of which require rocket science.
Smithsonian Digital Volunteers
Help make history with the Smithsonian Institution. Like By the People, the Smithsonian has an ongoing project in which digital volunteers (or as they call them, “volunpeers”) help transcribe and review historical documents and biodiversity data from the world’s largest museum and research center, including Sally Ride's papers, vintage copies of the NAACP’s official magazine, World War II diaries, field notes of biologists on remote expeditions, Phyllis Diller's personal archive of 50,000 jokes and one-liners, and detailed records from avid gardeners and birdwatchers.
Crisis Text Hotline
Let's be honest: You already spend hours mindlessly scrolling through the apps on your phone—so why not use that time to be a source of support for people experiencing a crisis? The Crisis Text Hotline is a free and confidential 24/7 crisis intervention hotline that conducts its conversations (the majority of which are about anxiety, depression, relationships, suicidal ideation, abuse, and loneliness) via text. Keep in mind, though: Crisis counseling is a big yet incredibly rewarding commitment, so make sure you have time for it before signing up; volunteers need to complete 30 hours of virtual crisis management training and should be able to commit to at least four hours of volunteering per week.
Since 2001, Bookshare has helped more than 800,000 people who cannot read traditional books—due to barriers that include dyslexia, learning disabilities, visual impairments, and physical disabilities—write a new chapter. That's because the literacy initiative provides a digital library of nearly 1 million titles (from Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye to Julia Quinn's The Duke and I to Angie Thomas's The Hate U Give to James McBride's Deacon King Kong to Vashti Harrison's Little Leaders) in accessible formats that feature karaoke-style highlighting, braille, and digital audio. To help expand its collection, you can volunteer to upload new books using a scanner or proofread and format previously scanned files.
Do you have a background in management, marketing, finance, operations, human resources, or law? According to Yelp, more than 100,000 businesses have permanently closed since the start of the pandemic and those that have remained open are struggling to survive—so there's never been a better time to work with a small-business owner and put your wisdom to good use. Since 2008, Micromentor has played matchmaker to more than 75,000 entrepreneurs and mentors, who work together to solve problems and build successful businesses across the globe.
Letters Against Isolation
Even if you haven't had a pen pal since middle school, you probably still remember the thrill of opening each letter—so bust out your ballpoint (not to mention your best stationary) and help make lonely seniors feel less, well, alone. Letters Against Isolation is a spirit-boosting initiative started by two Boston-based teens that asks volunteers to write thoughtful cards and letters to residents of assisted living facilities and care homes not only across the United States, but also in Canada, the UK, Australia, and Israel.
You're not killing time watching cute animal videos on your phone or laptop—you're busy protecting vulnerable wildlife here, people! The Instant Wild website and app is a project from the Zoological Society of London in which volunteers look at wildlife pictures and videos from around the world and identify certain animals—wildcats in Costa Rica; otters in England; bears, wolves, and lynx in Croatia; jaguars in Mexico; critically-endangered Príncipe Thrush on the island of São Tomé; black and white rhinos in in Kenya—all of which saves scientists' time and helps conservation efforts.
Learn to Be
Do you have serious writing chops? Are you practically a human calculator? Do you know your way around the history books? Use your powers for good—by becoming a virtual volunteer with Learn to Be, a nonprofit that offers free, 1-on-1 tutoring to students (from kindergarten to 12th grade) living in underserved communities across the country. Once your application is accepted, you can scroll through the student profile pages and select the best student for you. A+!
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