Physical distancing doesn’t have to prevent us from making a difference for those who need it most.

A few years ago, my fiance and I got into an argument on our way to spend Christmas with my family.

As we drove through unfamiliar territory, we began to notice a lot of people who appeared to be without a home. This started to break up the tension as we turned our thoughts to this bigger issue.

It made us realize that what we were fighting about was simply petty.

When we returned home, we decided to get cooking. We prepared some hot soup and ham sandwiches, then circled back to the men and women hovering over manholes to stay warm.

It became a ritual of ours after fights, and then on a weekly basis. Planning and preparing those meals brought us closer and allowed us to bond over a desire to work together to help others.

We’ve expanded over the last seven years, and our passion projects have been mostly geared toward helping veterans and children experiencing homelessness.

Shutdowns and physical distancing have prevented us from giving back the way we’d like, so we’ve searched for other ways to volunteer without risking exposure to COVID-19.

Physical distancing doesn’t have to prevent us from keeping up our ritual and making a difference for those who need it most.

Many have trouble volunteering because of hectic schedules. With virtual volunteering, it’s easy to find opportunities that fit your terms.

Studies show that those who volunteer report higher levels of happiness, likely due to an increase in empathy and a resulting sense of gratitude for what you have.

It can also boost self-confidence and give individuals a sense of belonging and purpose. I’ve personally felt idle sitting at home, and a sense of purpose is just what I need.

Whether you want to take the lead on a project or jump in and help, here are tips to find the right volunteer opportunity for you while physical distancing:

Find virtual opportunities

Databases are a great first step in finding the perfect volunteer opportunity. You can filter by categories, hours, and locations. That way, you can pick somewhere nearby in case you want to volunteer in person later.

VolunteerMatch and JustServe offer virtual opportunities to volunteer for nonprofit organizations, charities, and businesses with heart.

Grant a wish

If you have extra cash or a way to raise funds, you can fulfill charity wish lists. Many organizations accept items year-round.

You can choose from different categories like animal welfare, environmental organizations, health services, and the arts. Whatever moves you, you’ll find a cause to give to.

Items range in price from low cost to high ticket, so you’ll still have something to offer if you’re on a budget.

Network on social

Quite a few organizations are asking for help via their social pages. For instance, Cathedral Kitchen in Camden, New Jersey, asked for sandwiches to be dropped on their doorstep so they could continue their efforts of feeding the homeless, even after quarantine.

Network on your town’s Buy Nothing page on Facebook and ask about opportunities. If there’s interest, you can start a community drive. You can set up a giving box for people to donate canned goods, or collect cat food and feed the local stray colony.

A group in New Jersey, with the help of local restaurants, used crowdfunding to have meals delivered to COVID-19 wards in hospitals. These efforts not only generated income for local businesses, it showed appreciation to frontline workers, too.

Remember older adults

Considering that their age group is the most vulnerable, many older adults are inside their homes or in nursing facilities by themselves, unable to see their families.

Many are craving connection and appreciate volunteer efforts.

Luckily, some facilities are connected. You can take Matthew McConaughey’s lead and play Bingo. Other options are reading, playing virtual chess, or giving a musical performance.

To find out about these opportunities, reach out to a local assisted living facility or nursing home to learn what their needs are.

Use your talents

Create opportunities with your skills and hobbies. A New Jersey-based runner, Patrick Rodio, organized a fundraiser to honor the class of 2020 who won’t be attending their graduations.

The money will go to buying the student’s yearbooks. Any extra will go toward college scholarship funds. Rodio has already far surpassed his goal of $3,000.

If fitness is your thing but you don’t want to fundraise, providing low cost or free online fitness classes can be a rewarding way to give back.

If you’re a musician, share it! You can play an instrument or sing to individuals who live alone over video, or offer free live virtual jam sessions for anyone to join in.

Be a caregiver

Virtual babysitting is another great way to help. Occupying someone’s children for an hour may be just the break homeschooling parents need.

As a certified trauma-focused kids yoga teacher, I enjoy offering meditation or kid-friendly yoga sessions. Creative individuals can offer art lessons, Lego building sessions, or even puppet shows.

Teach your favorite subject

Tutor students on subjects that are your strong suit. If your job requires a lot of writing, offer to proofread papers for middle and high schoolers.

If you’re a math whiz, walk some students through word problems. Engineer? Offer coding classes for those looking to expand their job skills.

Find shared language

If you speak another language, now is a great time to flex that muscle.

Have Zoom conversations in French or offer translation services. This could mean helping a high schooler pass a class, or it could mean helping an exchange student practice their English.

You can also reach out to local hospitals and organizations in case they’re in need of translators for patients and their families.

We aren’t quite certain when things will go back to normal, or if quarantine is the new normal. While we may be limited in what we can do, that doesn’t need to stop our ability to give.

So many — from those experiencing homelessness to the neighborhood kids — depend on our generosity right now.

My fiancé and I look forward to seeing familiar faces when we can return to volunteering in shelters.

Until then, we’ve partnered with an assisted living facility to offer virtual art classes and music hours to keep their residents entertained.

Our hope is to inspire others to step outside their situations and look after someone to connect with anyone who has also been affected by COVID-19.

We’re grateful that technology has made altruism easier, so we can continue our ritual of giving back.


Tonya Russell is a freelance journalist covering mental health, culture, and wellness. She’s an avid runner, yogi, and traveler, and she resides in the Philadelphia area with her four fur babies and fiancé. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.