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Finding Community Service
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Introduction

Have you been assigned community service hours by a court? As part of your probation or sentence? By your school as a requirement for a class or for graduation?

No matter the reason you have been assigned mandatory community service, there are a lot of options for you to complete your required service. This is advice to help you get started as quickly as possible and have you finished as soon as possible. This advice also might help you turn this experience from a "have to" into a "want to", into something that will benefit YOU.

Rules

Mandatory community service or a "Court Referral Program" is an alternate sentencing option for Superior, Municipal, Traffic and Juvenile Courts in the USA. These courts have the option to assign community service hours to someone found guilty of a crime, in addition to, or in lieu of, incarceration and/or a fine. Community service can also be done as a condition of probation. Community service is considered restitution by an offender through helping his or her community. The service means actions, activity, engagement -- doing something that needs to be done and that helps the community or a cause.

Therefore, your mandated community service will need to be done at a registered nonprofit organization or through a government agency, and it will have to be approved by the court or your probation officer before you begin it.

A registered nonprofit is one that has a federal tax i.d. number. If you aren't sure if an organization is a registered nonprofit, ask if they have a federal tax id number, or look up the organization on Guidestar.org, a database of all registered nonprofit organizations in the USA.

Your mandated community service probably cannot be done to benefit a community of faith (churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, etc.). Check with your probation officer, your court liaison, a teacher at your school, or whomever has assigned you with community service to make sure before you begin working with such an organization.

You may also be permitted to volunteer with a government agency, such as a public school, a city-sponsored anti-drug program, a state park or a national park, a community court, a jail or prison, etc. Check with your probation officer, your court liaison, a teacher at your school, or whomever has assigned you with community service to make sure before you begin working with such an organization.

You may also be permitted to volunteer with a for-profit company if that company provides services to the community and involves volunteers, such as a for-profit hospital, a for-profit hospice or a for-profit retirement community (but not, say, a restaurant, a motorcycle shop, a computer store, a pet store, etc.). Check with your probation officer, your court liaison, a teacher at your school, or whomever has assigned you with community service to make sure before you begin working with such an organization.

Volunteering with nonprofit organizations with religious affiliations, such as Habitat for Humanity or the Boy Scouts of America, is usually permitted, but check with your probation officer, your court liaison, a teacher at your school, or whomever has assigned you with community service to make sure. Note that you do not have to express any religious affiliation or a belief in God to volunteer for Habitat for Humanity, but you DO have to express a belief in God in order to volunteer for the Boy Scouts (and note that you do NOT have to profess any religious faith to volunteer with the Girl Scouts of the USA).

Helping family with tasks (taking your grandmother to the grocery, cleaning your mother's house, baby sitting your sister's kids, etc.) will probably NOT be accepted as your community service.

Volunteering for an organization promoting a cause that is considered political may or may not be allowed. Volunteering with a nonprofit that advocates for foreign languages to be taught in schools might be allowed while volunteering for a political party may not be. Check with your probation officer, your court liaison, a teacher at your school, or whomever has assigned you with community service to find out what is and isn't allowed.

It is your responsibility to understand the court's or school's or university's requirements for documenting your community service.

It is your responsibility to make prior arrangements with each organization where you wish to volunteer and to ask if they are able to meet your documentation requirements.

An organization has every right to fire you / let you go as a volunteer, no matter how urgently you need to complete your community service. They are under no obligation to keep you -- especially if you have missed shifts, violated policies, etc.

If you are at all worried about finding or finishing your community service hours on time, then buy a paper notebook or make a spreadsheet, and capture the name of every organization you call or sign up with to express interest in volunteering, the date you contacted the organization, date you talked with the organization (if at all), and, if the organization turned you down to volunteer, information on their reasoning. At the time you have to provide documentation on your volunteering, present this documentation that shows all that you did to find volunteering activities; it should be a list of at least 50 organizations. Your teacher or probation officer or judge may or may not give you an extension to get your hours, but they most certainly will NOT if you don't have this documentation ready to share with them.

What to Say When You Contact an Organization

When you contact an organization, don't say immediately, "I have to have so many hours of community service." Say, instead, "I want to volunteer with your organization and want to know how I can get started right away." Organizations do NOT have to take every person who wants to volunteer and, therefore, they prefer people who seem to want to be there rather than those that have to be. Once you find out about volunteering at the organization, then you say, "I will need a letter by a certain date (and provide that date) that says how many hours I have volunteered at the organization, what I did as a volunteer, etc. I have to provide this to my probation officer/the judge in charge of my case/my teacher at such-and-such highschool/university, etc. Will you be able to provide that?" If they say yes, ask how your hours of service will be tracked - you may be asked to track these hours yourself.

In answer to the question, "Why do you want to volunteer," on a form or in an interview, you should most certainly say that you are volunteering so that you can fulfill mandated community service. But you can also say something about the organization's work that you like ("I care about the environment, I think the arts are important, etc."). When you are talking with the organization during your first orientation or interview, tell them how many hours you need for your community service, and by what date.

Be honest about any and all convictions when you are filling out your volunteering application. Some volunteer roles will ask for your arrest record as well. An arrest or conviction will NOT necessarily disqualify you from volunteering (it depends on the organization, the type of work it does, the population it serves and the volunteer tasks). If your service is court-ordered or a part of your probation, you must be up-front in your interview and on your volunteering application about your conviction.

If the organization wants you to track your days and hours yourself, write your days and hours down on paper or on a spreadsheet on your computer, and keep this information up-to-date! Track the days you volunteered, the times you volunteered, and a little about what you did.

You may need to volunteer at multiple nonprofits in order to get all of the hours you need within a given time frame.

Documenting/Tracking Your Hours

Do NOT wait until your service is over to announce that you need a letter confirming your hours, or that you need to organization to sign your spread sheet. Tell the organization from the very beginning that you will need a letter stating how many hours your contributed to the organization, the start date of your service, the end date of your service, and a summary of what kind of service you provided.

If the organization wants you to track your days and hours yourself, write your days and hours down on paper or on a spreadsheet on your computer, and keep this information up-to-date! Track the days you volunteered, the times you volunteered, and a little about what you did.

Where to Find Community Service Opportunities

There are many web sites where you can find places to complete your community service:

For Canada: You can also call organizations directly, based on your own interests. If you like animals, for instance, call your local animal shelter.

Goodwill is an excellent option for volunteering, especially if you are a person trying to re-enter the workforce.

Nonprofit theaters and performing arts centers are often in need of ushers in the evenings and on weekends; you not only get volunteer hours, you get into a show for free! Call local nonprofit theaters, including community theaters, to see if they need ushers and when you could participate.

There are some one-day volunteering activities, but these fill up very quickly, even months in advance. For instance, Habitat for Humanity's house-building days are often booked several months in advance. It's worth looking into, but know that you probably won't get to volunteer for many weeks after signing up. There are also one-day beach clean-ups, river clean-ups and park clean-up activities. To find these, you will have to call various organizations: the United Way, state and city park offices, the Sierra Club, etc. When you call, say, "I am looking for any upcoming one-day beach cleanups, one-day river clean-ups, one day park cleanups, etc. Do you know of any that are coming up?" If they say yes, ask for details and if you could sign up for such.

Contact the Girl Scouts of the USA council office that serves your area and see if there is a Girl Scout day camp or single event in your area that you could help with as a volunteer (please note that, if you are volunteering as a part of court-ordered community service, certain arrests and criminal convictions will prevent you from volunteering with the Girl Scouts; always be honest about past arrests and criminal convictions).

Each individual chapter of the American Red Cross involves volunteers in a variety of ways. Many chapters are looking for volunteers to help with warming centers in the winter, for instance, for the overflow from homeless shelters on days and nights that are at or below freezing (and unlike most homeless shelters, these often allow the homeless to bring their pets). You could be a volunteer in the office just a few hours a month. You could help at a special event. You could be a volunteer that is on call to help people who have lost their home to a fire. You could train to become a CPR/First Aid trainer. You could be a volunteer driver, taking people with mobility issues to medical appointments. Find your local chapter of the American Red Cross and look at their web site for information about volunteering. You will have to attend an onsite orientation and, depending on the assignment, some training.

If you have been convicted of any crime related to drugs, contact nonprofits and government offices in your area that are working to stop people from using drugs and ask them if you could volunteer in some way (the United Way may be able to help you identify these). If you have been convicted of any crime related to gang activity, contact nonprofits that are working to reduce gang violence and see if you could help as a volunteer in some way.

Do not wait until the last minute to try to volunteer! You will probably need to call several places just to get an appointment for an interview! It may take two to three weeks before you get started volunteering even if you start calling right away!

Do not call a place and expect to get 40 hours of community service in one week, starting tomorrow.

Do not show up at a work site unannounced. For instance, don't just show up at a Habitat for Humanity work site and say, "I'm here to volunteer." You need to call several days beforehand and go through their formal application and orientation process.

You will have to be trained for just about any volunteering you want to do, but training will almost always be counted as a part of your community service time if you complete at least a few hours of volunteering.

If you are volunteering as a part of court-ordered community service, have at least two references who are NOT family members and could attest to the positive aspects of your character. You will need the full names, the phone numbers, the email addresses and the physical addresses for these people, ready to write on any volunteer application. These references should be former or current employers, former or current co-workers at a job, a leader at your community of faith (priest, preacher, elder, Imam, head cleric, choir leader, Pujari, etc.), a neighbor you have done work for, someone at another organization you have volunteered for, etc. Your reference could even be your lawyer or your probation officer, or even a policy officer who believes you deserve a second chance.

Online Volunteering

Most volunteering that you can do from your home or a school computer requires a certain degree of expertise, such as designing flyers, maintaining a web site, translating text, editing video, designing a database, writing press releases or funding proposals, managing online social networking activities, etc. Even if you have the expertise necessary to volunteer online, you will still probably have to go onsite to the organization you want to help, to introduce yourself, to go through their orientation, to meet staff, and maybe even to convince them to allow you to volunteer online (virtual volunteering).

Also, some courts and schools will NOT count online volunteering as part of your community service. You must get permission first before you embark on online volunteering to meet your community service obligation.

This web page provides complete information about volunteering online.

Home-Based Volunteering

Below are home-based volunteering tasks you can do that don't involve using the Internet or computers to deliver your services (though you may need to use the Internet to sign up to help). These are assignments for people who sew, knit, or crochet, and for those who want to make greeting cards for ill children or to USA military personnel. These are good options if you have a criminal record that might prevent you from easily-finding volunteering opportunities onsite at nonprofit organizations.

HOWEVER, note that none of these organizations will track hours for your, and many may not supply you with a letter that confirms your community service to a court, a probation officer, a school, a university, etc. Also, many courts and schools will NOT count home-based volunteering as part of your community service. You must get permission from whomever gave you mandated service first before you embark on home-based volunteering to meet your community service obligation. Be able to answer these questions: how will your hours be verifiable? how can you confirm that you are doing the service and not your parents, a sibling, a friend, someone you are paying to do it, etc.? Also, you will have to pay for all materials yourself to make these items:

    Afghans for Afghans

    Mother Bear Project, provides crocheted and knit bears to children with HIV/AIDS

    Binky Patrol is an all volunteer, national, non-profit organization making and distributing homemade blankets to children born HIV+, drug-addicted, infected with AIDS or other chronic & terminal illnesses, those who are abused, in foster care or experiencing trauma of any kind. A binky is a homemade blanket that can be sewn, knitted, crocheted or quilted. the blankets range in size from three feet square up to twin bed size.

    Project Linus, making blankets and crafts for sick children

    Quilts of Valor (QOVs), making quilts for soldiers.

    Adopt a Soldier, allows volunteers to send letters and items to soldiers.

    Shawl Ministry (Christian volunteering)

If you have a criminal record that you believe might prevent you from easily-finding volunteering opportunities onsite at nonprofit organizations, consider these additional options:
  • Call your local hospital and ask to speak with the volunteering coordinator. Ask her if it would be okay for you to make get well cards for all the children in the pediatric unit, how many they should make, and how you would deliver those to the hospital so that they get to the kids. Ask if the volunteer coordinator would be willing to sign off on your volunteer hours for making these cards, and explain that you have a criminal record that you believe would prevent you from volunteering onsite at the organization. The cards should have no identifying information about you on them whatsoever -- not your name, not your address, etc. You will have to pay for all materials yourself to make the cards.

  • Make a list of all of the various senior homes in your immediate area. Call each and find out if it would be okay for you to make and drop off "Have a nice day" cards that you make. Ask if the volunteer coordinator would be willing to sign off on your volunteer hours for making these cards, and explain that you have a criminal record that you believe would prevent you from volunteering onsite at the organization. The cards should have no identifying information about you on them whatsoever -- not your name, not your address, etc. You will have to pay for all materials yourself to make the cards.

  • Call your local humane societies, ASPCA chapters and animal shelters, and ask if your family could:

    • Make appropriate food treats for dogs and cats and drop them off at the shelter. You can find a variety of recipes to make treats for dogs and cats online.

    • Make appropriate bedding for dogs and cats and drop them off at the shelter. You could use scrap materials gathered from your own home and that of neighbors. There are lots of suggestions for making your own dog and cat beds online.

    • Organize a dog and cat toy drive, or a food and supply drive for the shelter.

  • Volunteer to support UNICEF. UNICEF's online Volunteer Center provides activity toolkits and speaker resources to help you conduct awareness-building and fundraising activities in your community.

  • If you live in a public housing community, organize weekly presentations at a meeting room or common room at your building that address issues that might be important to the residents. These can be over lunch or over dinner. You would invite experts to come to talk at your public housing community for 30 minutes to an hour each week regarding various subjects. These people would be from anywhere: nonprofits, corporations, government offices, etc. In addition to approaching organizations or companies to make presentations for free, you would have to publicize the event to get residents to attend. Possible topics:
    • personal finance (how to get out of debt, how to stay out of debt, why one should never use a check-cashing company or quick loan company, why one should never use a Rent-a-Center to obtain a TV or other appliance, how to avoid credit card debt, etc.)
    • filling out job applications and doing well in a job interview
    • how to prepare for tax season
    • how to prevent HIV/AIDS and how to counter myths about HIV/AIDS
    • women's health
    • children's health
    • men's health
    • elder health
    • the importance of immunizing children
    • responsible pet ownership
    • Internet safety for adults
    • Internet safety for kids
    • how to avoid scams
    • basic food safety
    • basic car maintenance
    • how to recycle for money
    • all about the Girl Scouts of the USA, who can be a Girl Scout, why volunteer, etc.
    • basic computer maintenance/trouble-shooting
    • basic bicycle maintenance and bicycle safety
    • fire-prevention safety and what to do in case of fire
    • urban gardening/kitchen gardening/porch gardening
    • how to register to vote and why to vote
    • bat education (since many people believe bats are bad when, in fact, they are excellent for the environment)
    • pedestrian safety or bicycle safety
    • dating safety
    • elder safety
    • women's self defense
    • anti-bullying program
    • suicide prevention
    • what public libraries in your city have to offer residents

    When you call an organization, you say, "Hello, my name is ________________. I am putting together lunch-time/evening presentations for the _________________ public housing project. People come to our community and make a presentation about a subject our residents need to know about. I'm calling to see if anyone from your organization would be available to speak about __________________." Note to the person that you do not have money to pay speakers. You do not ever have to say you are doing this for mandated community service.

    You will have to ask the person who is requiring you to do your service hours if this kind of speaker's forum is acceptable, since you would be doing it on your own and no one can supervise how many hours you have volunteered. Ways to confirm that these activities happen is to:

    • Have each speaker write a letter "To whom it may concern" stating on what date you contacted the person to speak, on what date that person spoke, what the subject was, how long the presentation lasted and how many people attended. The letter would need to include the speaker's complete contact information.

    • Maintain a journal that lists the name of every organization you contact, the date you contacted them, the date of any conversations you had with an organization (if any), the date a representative of the organization presented (if such did happen), how many people attended each presentation, and the subject of each presentation. Be ready to hand this over at the end of your community service to the person who is requiring you to do service.

    • Have a notebook at every presentation and ask all attendees to write in it what they thought of the presentation. They can just say one word ("Great!" or "Boring!"), or write even more ("Thanks for this! I learned a lot" I'm going to open a bank account instead of using check cashing places" or "This wasn't what I wanted to learn today."). Be ready to hand this over at the end of your community service to the person who is requiring you to do service.

    You could count 1.5 hours for every presentation that happens, plus around an additional five hours to count for the time you spend before the first presentation happens in confirming a place to hold the presentation, identifying at least 15 places that might be able to help with a speaker, engaging in activities to get people to come to the presentation, etc. That means that, after 10 speakers, you would be able to count about 20 or 25 hours of community service time. After 30 speakers, you would be able to count about 60 to 75 hours.

    An added bonus of doing this kind of speaker's forum; you should put that you did this on your rísumí! Potential employers would be VERY impressed with this!

 
Volunteer Vacations

If you have a lot of time and enough money, you can go on these volunteer "vacations", but make sure your probation officer, court liaison or school approves (in writing):

  • The American Hiking Society sponsors several excellent volunteer vacations every year, constructing or rebuilding footpaths, cabins and shelters in some of the USA's most beautiful spots.

  • Sierra Club volunteer vacations help to state and federal land agencies. Service trips range from helping with research projects at whale calving grounds in Maui to assisting with archaeological site restoration in New Mexico.

Always check with your probation officer, court liaison or school before you begin any community service, to ensure it's acceptable.

 
Transportation

YOU are responsible for your transportation to and from a volunteering site. Choose community service activities that are near your work place and home, that you can easily get to by bike, by mass transit or by walking if you don't have a car or other reliable transportation.

The Value of Your Service

You aren't just completing mandatory service hours. As you complete your community service, you are:

  • Building references and contacts for future employment or for university applications
  • Gaining experience that looks great on a résumé
  • Gaining skills you can apply in paid work or in university studies
  • Helping an organization achieve its goals
Many people who start off doing mandatory community service end up staying at the organization, donating hours beyond what a school or court asked them to.

If you are volunteering to help you get into a university, note that different colleges and universities have different application processes. Some ask for volunteering hours, some don't. Those that do may want you to fill out a particular form, others will want you to supply letters from the organization confirming your hours, and still others will want you to write a narrative about why you volunteered, what you learned as a part of your experience, why you think volunteering is important, etc., and don't care about number of hours at all.

Warning!: Potential Scams Re: Community Service

There are a growing number of companies, some nonprofit, some for-profit, that claim if you pay them a fee, or if you will donate a certain amount of money to them, they will provide you with a letter for the court, your probation officer, a school, etc., saying you have performed a certain number of community service hours. I've blogged about some of them here. One of the companies even charges a monthly fee for users to track and report their community service hours - something anyone can do for free on a shared GoogleDoc spreadsheet.

If it's a for-profit company, you should be able to find on their web site:

  • A list of courts, by name, city and state, that have accepted community service arranged through this company (not just "courts in Florida", but "the circuit court of Harpo County, Florida"
  • A list about specific activities that people do as volunteers through the company
  • A list of "charity partners" or nonprofit partners or government agency partners that use this service
  • The names of staff and their credentials to show their experience regarding online volunteering or community service.
  • A list of all fees - specific dollar amounts
  • A scan of a letter they have provided to a court, a probation officer, a school, a university, etc. (with the contact name for the person blocked out, ofcourse), so you know exactly what the organization says to confirm community service.
  • A list of every court, school and university that has accepted the community service hours this company has ever arranged for anyone.

If it's a non-profit company, you should be able to find on their web site:
  • Their most recent annual report that notes their income and expenditures for their last fiscal year
  • The names of the board of directors
  • The names of staff and their credentials to show their experience regarding online volunteering or community service.
  • A list of courts, by name, city and state, that have accepted community service arranged through this company (not just "courts in Florida", but "the circuit court of Harpo County, Florida"
  • A list about specific activities that people do as volunteers through the nonprofit organization
  • A list of "charity partners" or nonprofit partners or government agency partners that use this service
  • A list of all fees - specific dollar amounts
  • A scan of a letter they have provided to a court, a probation officer, a school, a university, etc. (with the contact name for the person blocked out, ofcourse), so you know exactly what the organization says to confirm community service.
  • A list of every court, school and university that has accepted the community service hours this company has ever arranged for anyone.

If you can't find this information on the organization's web site, you need to think twice before you hand over your money.

Is It Community Service Or Volunteering?

It's both! For most nonprofit organizations, the designation "volunteer" is for anyone that is not paid by the organization. Therefore, volunteers include people who are required to provide community service by a court or a school. Most organizations will treat you the same way they treat all of their volunteers. In many circumstances, other volunteers and even most of the paid staff at an organization won't know you are being required to provide community service; to them, you will be just another volunteer, like all other volunteers.

If you found this page helpful, let others know:

Also see

 


 The Last Virtual Volunteering Guidebook,  available for purchase as a paperback and an ebook from Energize, Inc.
or as a paperback from Amazon or as a Kindle book from Amazon.
This book is for both organizations new to virtual volunteering, as well as for organizations already involving online volunteers who want to improve or expand their programs.
The last chapter of the book is especially for online volunteers themselves.
 


Credits & Copyright
© 2010-2014 by Jayne Cravens, all rights reserved. No part of this material can be reproduced in print or in electronic form without express written permission by Jayne Cravens.

Please contact me for permission to reprint, present or distribute these materials.

Disclaimer
Any activity incurs risk. The author assumes no responsibility for the use of information contained within this document.