How Volunteering on Thanksgiving Changed My Experience

Thanksgiving is a holiday that brings family and friends together. But what do you do if you don’t have a group to gather with? I ran into this dilemma one year in college, so I decided to try volunteering on Thanksgiving because I wasn’t partaking in the traditional festivities. This decision changed the rest of my college experience for the better.

The beginning

As a young student attending school in Tucson, AZ I was thousands of miles from family. I didn’t always have the means to travel over the always-chaotic, Thanksgiving weekend. During my first year there, I had a “Friends-giving,” of sorts, planned for the Friday after, but no actual plans on Thanksgiving Day. Sitting around and doing nothing seemed like a terrible option. I remember using my computer (something that wasn’t as automatic then as it is today!) to find a local organization that sponsored a free Thanksgiving dinner for anyone who might be looking for food and company. I knew that this was where I wanted to volunteer.

Thanksgiving Day

On Thanksgiving, I arrived ready to help. I was armed with my contribution of some store-bought, Albertson’s pumpkin pies. The dinner was outside in a very dusty, vacant lot next to a dollar store. My job was sorting and organizing the winter coats that had also been donated for the attendees. The desert is known for its extreme heat, but it can also be very cold during winter nights. I left that dinner feeling very appreciative. I also left with the feeling that I wanted to do more.

So at this point, you may be thinking, “Ok great, a college student did a few hours of volunteering on Thanksgiving. Big deal.” Little did I know that volunteering at this dinner would lead to other opportunities that I may never have stumbled upon otherwise.

The next step

At that time, I had also been struggling to find a part-time job. Because of this, I figured that I would at least continue volunteering with this particular organization until I found one. At the Thanksgiving dinner, I also learned they regularly put together a meal for the homeless once a week. It was at the same location. The vacant dirt lot on the south side of Tucson became so much more than that every Thursday night for many people.

At one of these dinners, I met a fellow volunteer. He asked me if I had any experience waitressing. I told him I did. He offered me a job on the spot at a local family-run event venue that he owned. I figured a job was better than no job, so I took him up on the offer. I ended up working for this family for the rest of my years in Tucson. This turned into a job I really enjoyed and I loved getting to know the family. To this day, I still keep in touch with them.

It was during these college years that I really began embracing the need to help others. Who knew that spending one Thanksgiving “alone” would lead me to people who were actually experiencing every part of this word’s definition? Stepping out of my comfort zone on that cold Thanksgiving night in the desert taught me so much more than I could have ever learned in a textbook.

If you’re looking to make an impact in our community by volunteering on Thanksgiving, you could start by contacting organizations such as Meals on Wheels, Metropolitan Ministries or Salvation Army. 

Emily Draper
Emily grew up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. She graduated from The University of Arizona with a degree in Business Administration, where her love affair with all-things desert began. She originally moved to Tampa in 2009 to be closer to her then-boyfriend, now-husband, Kyle. Together, they have two amazing (and amazingly strong-willed!) kids, Charlotte and Connor. Since starting a family, Emily has also lived in South Carolina and Metro Detroit, before returning to the Tampa area in 2017 to franchise a fitness studio, Red Effect Infrared Fitness In her spare time, Emily enjoys fitness, essential oils, reading, country music and anything crafty.