Navel-gazing is always a danger at this time of year – and not just to admire the results of a two-week assault on the fridge. Indoctrinated by “new year, new you” messaging, we fixate on self-optimisation: one hand dredging the Celebrations tub and the other searching online for “hot yoga near me” or “should I read Ulysses?”
But there is another way to be better: by doing something kind. This doesn’t mean giving money (welcome though that always is), it’s about giving your time, empathy, support and thought – finding ways to help the people around you.
To make this list of suggestions, I explored acts of kindness given and received, acutely needed and fondly remembered, with Guardian readers, charities, friends and family, marvelling at how much quietly industrious kindness goes on around us. I hope there is something for everyone: some require commitment; others need nothing more than the ability to boil a kettle. But what all these acts have in common is that they will make you feel good: research shows that being kind make us happier. So you can help others and feel better yourself all at once. You won’t get that kind of win-win from a gym membership.
Each donation can save up to three lives and you get free biscuits. Everyone eligible is welcome, but “we urgently need more blood donors of black heritage”, says Rob Knowles of NHS Blood and Transplant (they are more likely to be able to help the increasing number of patients with sickle cell disease). Sign up at blood.co.uk, call 0800 1232323 or use the NHS Blood app. If you can’t get an appointment immediately, don’t worry: your donation will be vital whenever it’s given. To donate quickly, the best appointment availability is at the 25 permanent donor centres across the UK.
The Cinnamon Trust provides support for elderly and terminally ill people who need urgent help to walk their pets so they can keep them. Check the map at cinnamon.org.uk, register as a volunteer and you will be ready when help is needed in your area.
Generally, having a chat with someone on the streets is a nice thing to do and often appreciated. It needn’t be anything heavy: ask how their day is going and if there is anything they would like or need help with. Some people want to chat, some don’t – just be respectful. If a homeless person tells you they are having difficulty accessing medical facilities or with other practical issues, the Big Issue suggests alerting StreetLink, which connects rough sleepers with services they need.
On top of the obvious non-perishable foods, the Trussell Trust says donations of toiletries, laundry and washing-up stuff, baby supplies and sanitary towels and tampons are always welcome. The best way to support food banks, though, is to find out what they need from day to day. I follow my local, the Collective Sharehouse, on Instagram, where it posts requests for urgent help. Remember, you can donate time as well as goods: “Food banks are busier than ever and very grateful to anyone who can spare a few hours on a regular basis,” says Ellie Lambert of the Trussell Trust. Help can include picking up or unpacking corporate donations, delivering to most in-need clients and even assistance with social media.
Sugar water can work wonders for tired bees. Illustration: Marcos Montiel at Synergy/The Guardian
Learn to revive a tired or struggling bee. If it’s wet, put it in the sun; otherwise deposit it on a high-nectar flower such as buddleia or sunflower, wait a while and if that hasn’t helped, offer a little sugar water (two tablespoons of white granulated sugar to one tablespoon of water, left on a spoon or in an eggcup).
Inspired by the Incredible Edibles movement, create a “propaganda bed” – an easily accessible pot or bed planted with herbs and vegetables for people to help themselves. Label it so passersby know what’s what, and that it’s all free.
During winter, Care4Calais needs coats for refugees in northern France, where 2,000-plus sleep rough. If you have a warm coat in reasonable condition, find a drop off point and pass it on to someone who needs it.
Repair cafes are booming and, as the BBC One series The Repair Shop shows, they can be a great source of joy. If you are handy with a sewing needle, bikes, carpentry, electricals or computers, your local repair cafe would almost certainly be delighted to have your help. If there isn’t one locally, why not start one?
Full? Take it out rather than leaving it for someone else in your home. Emptied? Take it in. It’s scientifically impossible to be anything other than thrilled when someone else deals with the bins.
About 50% of people in UK prisons struggle with reading. The Shannon Trust helps them to help one another throughout England, Wales and Northern Ireland. “Our prison volunteers train and support prisoner mentors to work one-to-one with learners,” says Karen Ryan, director of prison delivery.
At the moment, the trust particularly needs volunteers in central and eastern England. There is training and support and you are accompanied on your first prison visits. “We know volunteering in a prison setting isn’t for everyone,” Ryan says, “but we also have roles in the community to help people directly with learning or to help our area teams with administration and data collection.”
Green fingers can help the whole community. Illustration: Marcos Montiel at Synergy/The Guardian
You might know someone who could do with a hand with the heavy stuff. Otherwise consider helping Groundwork’s Green Aiders, which provides a one-off cleanup service for older, vulnerable and disabled people with overgrown gardens.
If you see someone in contortions, trying to take a selfie, offer to take a photo.
Sense, a charity for deafblind people and others with complex disabilities, organises volunteers to phone or video call disabled people to fight isolation and loneliness. Volunteers are supported for their first sessions and buddies find stuff to do they both enjoy – cooking, craft, watching a film, playing games …
“You’re looking nice,” is good. “You have great skin” or “I love your shoes” is better. Someone once told me I had “cute ears” and I treasured it for years.
Only 30% of blood cancer patients find family donors, meaning more donors are needed, especially male and minority ethnic ones. Existing blood donors can ask to join the NHS register during their next donation. Blood cancer charities DKMS and Anthony Nolan also have their own registers. Check online if you are eligible to donate, order a free cheek swab kit, swab and return. You will be added to the register and contacted if there’s a match.
Give someone a curated Spotify or YouTube playlist of stuff you think they would like.
Francesca helps out at Hackney winter night shelter in east London. “Our role is to create a welcoming space for guests,” she says. “We volunteer in three-hour shifts and it’s mainly cooking breakfasts or meals, having a chat, keeping the place tidy etc. The support the guests get is brilliant, and the lively and lovely community of volunteers do a lot in terms of fundraising. It is really important to us that we are able to help out, and in our local community.”
All charities need trustees and many struggle to find them. Whatever your skill set, you almost certainly have something to contribute to a local charity. It’s rarely a major time commitment – a few hours every few months at most – and a great way to get more involved in your community. Ask around or check the vacancies at reachvolunteering.org.uk.
Leave a box of biscuits or a cake in the kitchen, or put bars of chocolate on your colleagues’ desks anonymously, then secretly enjoy the happy buzz it creates.
Sick critters need your help! Illustration: Marcos Montiel at Synergy/The Guardian
RSPCA animal rescue volunteers collect sick, injured or orphaned birds and small mammals and take them to vets, rehabilitation or wildlife centres, and help out with other animal transport jobs. “It’s a unique opportunity to help animals,” says Lucy Bailey of the RSPCA. Volunteers need to have access to a vehicle and a smartphone – all other kit and training is provided. Find out more at rspca.org.uk.
Apps and sites such as Next Door, Buy Nothing, Freecycle and Olio are easy ways to give away stuff you don’t need but others in your area might. People also post requests for things they need, or for other assistance: lifts, gardening help, local recommendations … It’s enormously satisfying when you can help out.
Paula fostered cats for several years. “We had to spend a lot of time building trust and gently playing,” she says. “It could be tricky at times – blood was drawn! – but the breakthrough moments were lovely.” It was sad when cats moved on, she says, but adds: “I still get photos of the cats in their new homes. I love to see them lounging, looked relaxed and in charge of the house.”
To foster cats, dogs, or other animals for the RSPCA, you need to be 18 and own your home, or have permission from your landlord to have pets, and be able to transport your foster animal to vet appointments.
Strikers need solidarity to keep feeling positive: show yours with a box of biscuits or a round of hot drinks.
Children have had an especially tough few years, and four hours a week answering calls can make a huge difference. The recruitment process is quite lengthy and careful: there is training and assessment, followed by two observed shifts and one mentored one before potential volunteers find out if they are a good fit. It’s worth it. “I was really nervous on my first shift, but also loved it, feeling good to be even a small part of being there for a young person wanting to talk,” a recent recruit tells me. “There can be difficult and upsetting contacts, but volunteers are always supported by experienced supervisors. It’s not all doom and gloom, and when a young person says: ‘Thanks for listening and not judging,’ or ‘I hadn’t thought of it like that’, I feel such a high.”
Organisations such as Schoolreaders and Beanstalk match volunteers with schools to listen to children reading, usually focused in areas with high literacy needs. You need to be 18 or over with a good grasp of English. If travelling is tricky, you can provide reading support online by volunteering with Bookmark.
The charity Tools With a Mission needs used tools, which it reconditions and sends to the developing world to help people develop skills and livelihoods. Check the list of what is needed at twam.uk.
Make a new friend over the phone. Illustration: Marcos Montiel at Synergy/The Guardian
Age UK’s telephone befriending service will match you with an older person who would enjoy a 30-minute chat once a week.
Find some postcards – you probably have a pile lying around somewhere – and write to people you haven’t spoken to for a while. Tell them you are thinking of them, share a memory or thank them for something they did for you.
Given the number of hours most of us spend at work, many mental health crises occur there. Knowing there is someone available who can offer confidential support can make all the difference, so ask your employer if you can train as a workplace mental health first aider.
Sign up to easyfundraising.org.uk and whenever you shop online, many big companies (including major supermarkets, Amazon, eBay and Trainline) will donate a portion of your spend to charity. It doesn’t cost you anything.
Is a friend or acquaintance dealing with the pre- or post-move slog or just struggling to keep on top of things? Offer to help them declutter or clean while they get on with other tasks.
Help out people new to your job, or wanting to get started. It doesn’t have to be formal – a chat at the tea point and the offer of support can be huge – but there are also organisations that can match you up, such as Arts Emergency, aimed at young people who want to work in the arts, and Meet a Mentor in the tech sector.
Become a “Big” for Big Brother Big Sister and spend time with a seven- to 12-year-old who could do with a supportive figure in their life once a week. Or, if you are in London, Manchester or Liverpool, the charity Reach Out needs after-school mentors for primary and secondary school pupils.
As a gig buddy, you will accompany someone with autism or a learning disability to concerts or other fun events, making their experience smoother and less stressful than it might be otherwise. The project started in Brighton, but there are now lots of Gig Buddy projects around the UK.
The British Heart Foundation estimates there are approximately 30,000 out-of-hospital cardiac arrests each year; knowing what to do if you encounter one can mean the difference between life and death. Take 15 minutes and do the BHF’s free online training course.
Just because it’s natural doesn’t mean breastfeeding is easy for all new mothers: encouragement and advice from someone who has been there can help. You can train to be a peer supporter with the Breastfeeding Network.
Put your skills to good use. Illustration: Marcos Montiel at Synergy/The Guardian
Action Tutoring works to close the attainment gap for disadvantaged children. “I’d wholeheartedly recommend applying,” says Laura, who volunteered. “My 10-year-old tutees were a delight – sparky and fun. I looked forward to seeing them every week, hearing their news and watching their skills and confidence grow. Best of all, I got an email at the end of the programme to let me know how they had got on in their Sats – they had aced them.” You will need a B grade at A-level in English or maths (or a relevant degree). Training and resources are provided and a helpful coordinator is just a text or phone call away.
If you’re sure it’s safe, flash your lights or wave your hand at someone waiting to cross the road in front of you.
Refugee charities often need volunteer interpreters. Medical Justice, which works to ensure detainees’ health rights are respected, needs people with a range of languages from Albanian to Vietnamese at immigration removal centres across the UK.
Many cafes offer a “pay it forward” system, where you can buy an extra coffee for someone (an especially good way to support homeless people). Alternatively, just pay for the person behind you without them knowing, then disappear, fairy godmother style.
Shout (giveusashout.org) is a confidential text messaging service supporting children and adults in distress – not everyone is comfortable with making a phone call. Volunteers are trained and receive coaching and support. You only need to commit to one shift, usually two to four hours, from home each week.
If you are near Birmingham, Reading or Twickenham, you can donate plasma – vital for people with weakened immune systems and other conditions. Unlike blood, you can donate once a fortnight: see blood.co.uk.
Also consider donating platelets. “The NHS relies on a very small group of platelet donors to keep this special healing agent in good supply,” says Rob Knowles, of NHS Blood and Transplant. “Male blood donors with good veins who are happy to take a little longer when they donate typically graduate to platelet donations and our staff are always happy to talk to donors about making the switch.” Existing type-A blood donors are particularly in demand for platelets at the moment.
There are organised litter picks everywhere – a nice way to meet people in your community who are also enraged by rubbish – but there is nothing stopping you from heading out with a binbag and gloves. The humorist David Sedaris has picked so much litter that he had a bin lorry named in his honour: that could be you.
“We see people in our asylum system face incredible challenges in the face of hostile government policy. But we’re always heartened by the public’s seemingly limitless generosity and desire to help,” says Tim Naor Hilton, Refugee Action’s chief executive. “Volunteers are the lifeblood of Refugee Action. People can help our clients to access asylum support and accommodation to make sure they have food and a roof over their head, and mentor refugees to help them find work and support with English, among other opportunities.” Roles are posted at refugee-action.org.uk or sign up for volunteer alerts.
Ask delivery people if they would like a drink, or to use your loo – and tip food riders if you can.
Assuage your climate guilt by delivering meals on wheels, driving people to hospital appointments, picking up shoes for Sal’s Shoes (which sends shoes to children who need them), or dropping off donations for the hygiene charity Beauty Banks. Or just text your neighbours when you are going to the dump in case they need to get rid of anything you could drop off.
Dementia Adventure organises supported holidays for people with dementia and their carers, giving them fun experiences and respite. Volunteers are essential to these events, to provide practical support and company.
Support Dogs needs homes for future canine helpers for people with autism, epilepsy and other disabilities until the dogs start training at 14 months. Guide Dogs for the Blind and Hearing Dogs need puppy care, too.
Libraries are a lifeline all year, but in this winter of much bigger energy bills, they are doubling up as welcoming warm spaces. To keep doing this, they need help: ask what you can do at your library.
The relentless shift online has left many behind. Do you know someone who might need help with Google, setting up a smartphone or an email account, or making web-based payments?
Message someone who might welcome a hot meal to say that you have made too much and could they take some off your hands – if you frame it as a favour to you, they may be more likely to say yes.
It’s old school, but giving a hand to carry a bag, find a trolley or lift a pushchair can instantly make someone’s journey marginally less stressful. Offering to distract a toddler for a few seconds can feel more awkward, but when my kids were little that sometimes averted total meltdown (mine and theirs).
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