Fifty-Two Weeks of Service

By Gigi Gano Ekstrom

Nobody can do everything, but everybody can do something. ~Author unknown

Small, daily acts of kindness can have a profound impact.

This year, I am setting forth on a personal quest: to volunteer every week of the year, with a different organization each time. Fifty-two different non-profits to learn about and work with. Fifty-two weeks of service.

I fully believe that helping others can make the world a better place. One person at a time, one day at a time, and one project at a time, you, too, can make a difference that will leave a lasting impact.

In my Community Connections service club at Lakehill Preparatory School, our mantra is, “It’s not about me.” So how do I incorporate that into my life and set an example for others to follow?

When it comes to making a difference, nothing matters more than simply taking action. Every effort counts, no matter how small it may seem. As we say in Community Connections, “Just do something.”

It doesn’t matter how old you are, where you live, or how much money you have. You just have to show up…and just do something. Keep in mind that the most valuable skills you can bring to any volunteer assignment are compassion, an open mind, a willingness to do whatever is necessary, and a positive attitude.

While I suspect most of my projects will focus on nonprofits in Dallas, Texas, as that is where I live and work, I am also looking forward to exploring opportunities in other cities when my family and I travel. My hope is that these activities will inspire others to seek out opportunities in their own communities.

Let’s get started!

Week 52. The SoupMobile Celebrate Jesus Event

December 24, 2018

Beginning in 2005, the SoupMobile’s annual Celebrate Jesus event makes “room at the inn” for 500 homeless men, women, and children at the downtown Dallas Omni Hotel.
The goal is to give the 500 homeless guests a truly magical Christmas. They all receive new clothes, gifts, and a lot of love, and attend a huge banquet held in their honor. Most importantly, when they wake up on Christmas morning, it’s in a warm, safe bed at the Omni – not in a cardboard box under a bridge.

Each year, more than 2,500 volunteers help the SoupMobile put on this one-of-a-kind event at Christmas. My family and I have worked the Banquet Red Carpet for more than a decade, encouraging friends to join us when they can. Volunteers line up on both sides of the 1,000-foot red carpet (just like at the Academy Awards). At 12:15 p.m., the 500 homeless men, women, and children descend from their rooms at the Omni and begin to walk the red carpet on their way to the banquet in the ballroom. Volunteers clap, cheer, high-five, hug, and share Christmas wishes. Once the last homeless guest has walked the red carpet, volunteers follow them into the ballroom. The homeless guests are treated to an amazing feast, served by more volunteers. This year’s program included words from Mayor Mike Rawlings, entertainment featuring Grammy Award winning gospel singer Tamela Mann, and an inspiring message from David Timothy, the Soup Man himself.

Just prior to the event this year, my son and I had a heartfelt conversation. He voiced his frustration at not being able to do more, and expressed his discomfort at “just standing and clapping.” We talked about the hardships of homelessness and how experiencing it can rob a person of their dignity. We agreed that maybe on Christmas Eve, the greatest thing we could do for the homeless was to help give them a sense of dignity. Simple things, like a handshake, a high-five, a hug, or truly looking them in the eye, can go a long way in restoring dignity and igniting hope.

As I stood on the red carpet, cheering and hugging the homeless guests, my own tears flowed freely as I saw the tears in their eyes and the smiles on their faces. I hoped that maybe – at least for that one day – they felt elevated, and loved, and hopeful.

Find out more about the SoupMobile and the work they are doing in Dallas.



Week 51. Dallas Life

December 22, 2018

I can’t believe I am nearing the end of my 52 weeks of service. It really has been an amazing adventure!

For Week 51, I spent time at Dallas LIFE, one of my favorite places to volunteer. We scheduled our lunch-service shift for the Saturday immediately after school was released for the holiday break. I was joined by 20 members of Lakehill Preparatory School‘s Warrior Outreach Organization.

From its humble beginnings in 1954 as the Dallas Rescue Mission, housing 25 men a night, Dallas LIFE has grown into the largest homeless shelter in North Texas. Its current facility on Cadiz Street in downtown Dallas houses up to 700 men, women, and children, and offers a multitude of programs to serve those experiencing homelessness.

Under the direction of Reverend Bob Sweeney since 2005, Dallas LIFE has continued to grow, adding a computer school and GED program, and establishing long-term programs for senior citizens and those with slight mental health issues. The 10-month New LIFE Program graduates approximately 50 residents each year who are recovered from addition, reconnected with family, and have housing and employment.

All Dallas LIFE guests are served three balanced meals per day. According to their website, the shelter serves an average of 1,000 to 1,200 meals daily. The newly remodeled kitchen and dining area are staffed primarily by residents, and most of the food prepared at Dallas LIFE comes through their in-kind product donation program.

The 100,000 square-foot facility offers dormitory style housing for men and women on separate floors. There are also 50 individual family unit rooms, allowing children to remain with their parents. Additional temporary space can be created during extreme weather.

Clothing donations are sorted, inventoried, and placed in the clothing room, where residents can select outfits for themselves and their children.

The in-house computer center helps residents develop computer skills and use email. The New LIFE Program incorporates basic office software training and resume preparation classes. Residents can also complete GED requirements. A state-of-the-art clinic provides free medical, dental, and vision treatment. Free individual and group counseling is available, as well as play therapy for children. A full-time chaplain is on staff to oversee the spiritual program, including daily chapel services, Sunday worship, prayer meetings, and Bible study. Children and teens are welcome at Dallas LIFE, and parents can take advantage of a wealth of resources, including supplies, parenting classes, and childcare referrals.

It is extremely easy to volunteer at Dallas LIFE. You must first fill out a Volunteer Application for an individual or a group (one person may complete the application for all members in the group). Once you pass a background check and are approved, you can log in under the schedule tab to see the daily needs. You can schedule yourself or your group online, according to your availability. A variety of opportunities are available, from serving meals to sorting donations in the clothing closet.

Over the years, I have taken several groups to volunteer for the lunch service at Dallas LIFE, and always find it a wonderful experience. It is a great way to interact directly with the residents.

All volunteers serving in food service must be 10 years of age or older. Those 10-12 years of age can serve cold foods, desserts, and drinks in the dining room. Volunteers 13 years of age or older can join the adults in the kitchen to help serve hot foods and keep the food line stocked. Volunteers will be provided with aprons, gloves, and hair nets. A typical shift is about two hours.

Volunteers are given instructions from the Food Service Staff upon arrival, and are assigned a position. Working on the food service line, serving water, cleaning tables, carrying trays, and washing dishes are all possibilities. On this visit, we also enjoyed preparing some of the food prior to the meal service.

Dallas LIFE follows a conservative dress code, so be sure to dress accordingly. Jeans or slacks should be worn by volunteers serving in the kitchen. Dallas LIFE asks that volunteers avoid running shorts, leggings, or tights as pants. Shirts must have sleeves, an appropriate neckline, and cover the midriff. Closed-toe shoes are required.

Find out more and get involved here.


Week 50. Sandbranch

December 16, 2018

Sandbranch is known as Dallas County’s poorest neighborhood. A small, unincorporated community located just 14 miles southeast of Dallas, the fifth-wealthiest city in the United States, Sandbranch has been fighting for over 30 years to have access to clean running water.

Established in 1878 by the Reverend Allen Hawthorne, a freed slave from Louisiana, along with 11 other freedmen, the community grew around the Mount Zion Baptist Church, which continues to be at the center of this tight-knit community.

At its peak, Sandbranch’s population numbered approximately 500 people, but today only about 80 remain, all of whom live below federal poverty levels. The average age is 68. None of the homes have running water, sewer service, or trash pickup. The water in the community is contaminated, and residents desperately need food and drinkable water.

Sandbranch is also in a food desert, which means that residents – many without transportation – must find a way to travel more than seven miles to the nearest grocery story for healthy food options.

Sandbranch has never had running water in the entire 138 years of its existence, but up until the 1980s, people in the community used well water, which has now either run dry or is too contaminated to drink. Residents now depend on donated water or water purchased in nearby cities and brought in.

Mount Zion Baptist Church, under the leadership of Reverend Eugene Keahey, has been pivotal in helping the residents of Sandbranch maintain a decent quality of life.

For the past 22 years, the Dallas Bar Association (DBA) and special friends have contributed food and distributed it to families in the Sandbranch Community.

This was the third year that my family and I have helped distribute food during the holidays. DBA members raise the money and purchase the food to distribute to approximately 65 families. Volunteers gather at Mount Zion Baptist Church to help distribute the care packages. After unloading the U-Haul trailer and sorting the frozen turkeys, large bags of rice, beans, flour, and sugar, and cases of canned foods, volunteers and community members set up stations for each of the items on the side of the road in front of the church. Once all the items have been arranged, residents drive through the line and the items are loaded directly into their cars. Neighbors with cars help those without, so that everyone can take part.

There is a wonderful camaraderie among volunteers and neighbors, all working together for the benefit of a special community.

Read more about Sandbranch here.

Week 49. Salvation Army Red Kettle

December 3, 2018

I love the story behind the familiar Salvation Army Red Kettle at the holidays. According to The Salvation Army’s website, the kettle originated back in 1891, when Salvation Army Captain Joseph McFee was distraught because so many poor individuals in San Francisco were going hungry. During the holiday season, he resolved to provide a free Christmas dinner for the destitute and poverty-stricken. He faced a major obstacle, however, in funding the project.

As he pondered how to find the funds to fulfill his commitment of feeding 1,000 of the city’s poorest individuals on Christmas Day, he thought back to his sailor days in Liverpool, England. He remembered a large, iron kettle called “Simpson’s Pot,” located at Stage Landing, where the boats came in, where passersby could toss in their coins to help the poor.

The next day, Captain McFee placed a similar pot at the Oakland Ferry Landing at the foot of Market Street. Beside the pot, he placed a sign that read, “Keep the Pot Boiling.” He soon had the money he needed to feed the poor at Christmas.

Six years later, the kettle idea spread from the West Coast to the Boston area. That year, the combined effort nationwide resulted in 150,000 Christmas dinners for the needy. In 1901, kettle contributions in New York City provided funds for the first mammoth sit-down dinner in Madison Square Garden, a custom that continued for many years. Today in the U.S., The Salvation Army assists millions of people during the Thanksgiving and Christmas time periods.

Captain McFee’s kettle idea launched a tradition that has spread not only throughout the United States, but all across the world. Public contributions to Salvation Army kettles enable the organization to continue its year-round efforts to help those who would otherwise be forgotten.

Every December for many years, I have had the opportunity to ring the bell for the Salvation Army. A friend from the photography department at The Dallas Morning News sponsors the kettle at NorthPark Mall on Mondays throughout the holiday season between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and he always invites us to participate. We fill several slots with faculty, staff, and students at Lakehill Preparatory School, and my family and I always volunteer for a shift together.

Celebrating more than 125 years, the Salvation Army’s traditional red kettle is an integral part of the holidays, with millions of dollars donated each year to aid needy families, seniors, and the homeless, in keeping with the spirit of the season. Donating to a red kettle is easy – spare change helps change lives.

Volunteer groups are needed to staff red kettle sites for a minimum of a full day. This is a great way for organizations to help raise important funds that make an immediate difference in the community. It is a fun activity for any age, and even more enjoyable when done with friends or family. The day can be divided into multiple shifts, to make it easy for volunteers to get involved. Find out more.

Week 48. Feed My Starving Children

December 1, 2018

During my 48th week of service, I volunteered for Feed My Starving Children with Upper School members of the Warrior Outreach Organization (WOO) at Lakehill Preparatory School.

I first learned about Feed My Starving Children (FMSC) at Voly in the Park last summer. I spoke to them at length and learned that they were opening a facility in Texas. It was simple to sign up a group with their online registration process.

Feed My Starving Children is a Christian non-profit organization that coordinates the packaging and distribution of food to people in developing nations. Founded in 1987, it has reached out to more than 70 countries. Their process is simple. The organization recruits volunteers, including school children, to assist in packing. They also employ paid staff to supervise the operations.

Volunteers hand-pack scientifically formulated MannaPack meals for undernourished children, which are distributed to a network of missions and humanitarian organizations around the world. FMSC works with food partners who are reaching the most needy and vulnerable in Africa, the Caribbean, Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and North, Central, and South America. Donations fund the meal ingredients. Volunteers are encouraged to donate, or shop in the gift shop (or online) for t-shirts and hand-crafted items. A donation of just $80 helps them feed one child for an entire year.

FMSC has permanent sites in Arizona, Illinois, Minnesota and Texas. Opportunities are also available nationwide through FMSC MobilePack events, which allow volunteers to engage in an impactful meal-packing experience, regardless of their location in the United States. These special events provide the opportunity to instill compassion in your own community and improve the lives of malnourished children around the world.

Volunteering with FMSC was a well-organized process from start to finish. It was easy to sign up, the training was thorough, and atmosphere was energetic and fun. I especially appreciated the debriefing after the packing was completed, as well as the opportunity to sample a MannaPack meal. It added a special connection between what we were doing and who we were serving. During our shift, volunteers packed 151 boxes, representing 32,616 meals–enough to feed 89 children for a year.

Sign up to volunteer here or learn more about hosting a MobilePack event.

Week 47. Holiday Luncheon

November 20, 2018
with updates on December 14, 2018

For 40 years, on a special Friday in December, Lakehill Preparatory School continued a holiday tradition that remains in the hearts of attendees long after the pumpkin pie is finished.

This year’s Holiday Luncheon, held on December 14, brought 150 elderly residents from around east Dallas to the school’s main campus to share the spirit of the season with the Lakehill family.

The entire Upper School assisted in welcoming the seniors to the school. Each grade has progressively more complex responsibilities. Members of Lakehill’s senior class, along with their parents and class sponsors, joined forces with the entire Upper School to provide a memorable holiday experience for senior citizens. The senior class, along with their parents, hosted the luncheon feeding over 700 people throughout the day. While the senior citizens were eating, they were joined by Lower and Middle school students and entertained with various performances.

Juniors, dressed as elves, reindeer, and Santa and Mrs. Claus, visited with guests and posed for pictures. Sophomores served as photographers, giving guests a framed photo as they left the luncheon. Freshman decorated the Commons and hosted the guests for refreshments after their meal.

Students in all grade levels helped by donating the items that were used to fill the stockings that our Lower and Middle School Community Connections club members prepared for each guest. We spent several days organizing all the donations, sorting into categories, such as tissues, stationary, shampoo, and lotion, followed by several days stuffing each stocking with goodies. As each guest left the Luncheon, they received a poinsettia, the picture frame with their picture with Santa and Mrs. Claus, and a stocking full of goodies.

The Holiday Luncheon is a wonderful tradition that truly reinforces the meaning of the holidays. Many of these guests are regular attendees who look forward to the luncheon every year. Tasty food, good music, and enjoyable conversations with the students seemed to get everyone in the holiday spirit.

Week 46: Trusted World

November 12, 2018

During Week 46 of my 52 weeks of service, my family and I collected clothing items for Trusted World. We first learned about this organization through their Disaster Services program following Hurricane Harvey in 2017. From August through November, Trusted World sprang to the forefront of the relief effort, being named the charity to handle the donation management of Harvey relief in Dallas. Over 20,000 volunteers provided more than 45,000 hours to help sort, pack, load, and deliver supplies to the affected areas. We enjoyed working in their huge temporary warehouse space, sorting items that had been donated. During the 2017 hurricane season, over 13 million items were donated and processed, resulting in 2,700 pallets that were shipped to more than 20 different cities in two states and three territories.

In addition to their Disaster Services program, the primary goal of Trusted World is the collection and distribution of goods, such as food, clothing, and personal care items. They provide local non-profits with the resources they need, at no cost, to ensure their clients receive the necessary items promptly. They work closely with school counselors, social workers, police departments, and other nonprofits who serve the community.

The organization receives donations from all over North Texas. Item are inspected and sorted by volunteers, then placed into an inventory system for other nonprofits to order online. By providing these resources to other nonprofits at no charge, Trusted World eliminates their need to collect, sort, and process items, giving them more time to focus on their core missions.

Donations of gently used and new clothing, shoes, and new travel- to full-sized toiletries are always needed.

Items currently in demand include:

Men’s Pants, specifically waist size 32 or 34
Men’s Pajamas, all sizes
Men’s Belts, all sizes
Men’s Work Boots, all sizes
Boy’s Pajamas, large and XL
Girl’s Clothing (shirts, jeans, shorts), sizes 6-16
Boxed food (spaghetti, rice, mac & cheese)
Canned Meats
Canned Fruit
Canned Pasta
Individual size cookies, fruit chews, chips
Peanut Butter
Bug Spray

Find a donation drop-off location near you.

Volunteer opportunities are available at both Trusted World’s Allen Service Center and its Garland Service Center. With food and clothing donations received daily, volunteers are always needed to check for quality, sort, and inventory items. Volunteer hours are Monday through Friday from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., and select evenings. Families are welcome. Volunteers under the age of 18 must have parent supervision.

Week 45. First Aid Kits for Brady Senior Services Center

November 7, 2018

During my 45th week of service, I worked with my Lower School Community Connections members at Lakehill Preparatory School to create small first aid kits for senior citizens served by The Brady Program.

We first created “First Aid Kit” labels that volunteers attached to small Ziploc bags. They then fill edthe bags with antiseptic wipes, antibiotic cream, alcohol pads, gauze, and Band-Aids. We boxed up all the first aid kits – about 500 in total – and delivered them to Catholic Charities to distribute to those served by The Brady Program.

Catholic Charities Dallas (CCD) is a faith-based social service agency focused on improving the quality of life for people in need. Comprised of 17 individual programs serving the nine counties in North Texas, they help over 30,000 individuals annually to achieve stability and self-sufficiency through financial literacy, employment services, education, food programs, immigration legal services, refugee resettlement, disaster services, and permanent supportive housing.

Brady Senior Services aims to improve the health and wellness of senior citizens ages 60 and older. Services are designed to promote and support personal independence and emotional and physical well-being while recognizing individual dignity. The Brady Senior Services Center provides over 500 Dallas area seniors with daily meals, information and education, social activities, exercise classes, and access to medical care. With the Brady Program now housed at Marillac, seniors can take advantage of all of the services and activities available.

I was thrilled to have the opportunity to visit the new offices for Catholic Charities when I delivered the first aid kits, and to later visit the Marillac Campus which now houses the Brady Program, and the CCD’s newly opened St. Jude Center which provides long-term housing to the chronically homeless.

Week 44. Trek for Tech

November 3, 2018

When hundreds of people take to the streets for a good cause, a great deal can happen.

Lakehill Preparatory School‘s 20th Annual Trek for Tech, the Parent Faculty Club’s signature fall event, combined all the right elements: beautiful fall weather, two great races, dedicated sponsors, enthusiastic volunteers, and a raffle with fantastic prizes. The results were a great time for all who attended, and a lot of money raised to purchase new technology.

Students, families, and faculty members put their best foot forward in the one-mile Fun Run, while a large crowd hit the pavement for the 5K chip-timed race. Organizers report that 416 people registered for this year’s races, an increase over 2017. Over 50% of the student body participated in the event, an all-time high. The Trek Committee is still counting the monies raised through sponsorship, registration, and technology purchases, but are anticipating a record-breaking year.

Events like this one couldn’t happen without dedicated volunteers. There are so many ways to get involved as sponsors, organizers, course monitors, and committee members. Amazing companies, individuals, and families supported the race through underwriting and equipment purchases, and the faculty, National Junior Honor Society, and parent volunteers helped the event run smoothly.

Most school’s host events such as fun runs, auctions, and carnivals. Why not find one near you to volunteer your time and expertise?

Week 43.Graffiti Abatement with the City of Dallas

October 27, 2018

Graffiti is the personal act of marking or etching on someone’s property without their effective consent. Painting graffiti, also known as “tagging,” is a crime.

The Dallas Police Department is dedicated to the eradication of graffiti vandalism by pursuing prosecution of the suspects to the fullest extent of the law, as well as providing education and preventive programs though coordinated efforts of city agencies, business organizations, and community groups.

Managed by the Department of Code Compliance, the Graffiti Abatement and Prevention Program (GAPP) aims to to eliminate problematic tagging through community involvement, education, and building sustainable partnerships.

I have partnered with the City several times, taking students of all ages to paint over graffiti. They do great job educating the volunteers about graffiti in our community. They also introduced us to the Fabrication Yard in West Dallas, where the City gives street taggers a canvas where they can legally display their work. Since 2013, when Dallas declared that the building would be a “free wall,” graffiti artists have found a place to paint without fear of arrest.

The City enlists volunteers to maintain the other buildings in the area. On October 27, I volunteered to paint over graffiti with 20 members of our Warrior Outreach Organization (WOO) at Lakehill Preparatory School. We provided a five-gallon bucket of gray paint and the city provided the gloves, brushes, rollers, and other supplies. The graffiti runs the gamut, from impressive artwork to inappropriate tagging. I always enjoy seeing what the graffiti artists have created when allowed to do so legally. When it comes to painting over the tagging, I appreciate that it’s relatively easy to cover it up and make things look better. Just for fun, the City let us do a bit of our own “tagging” (see bottom picture). But don’t worry – we painted over it after we took the picture!

The City of Dallas has established a variety of programs to help control, prevent, and remove graffiti. Volunteers are always needed.

Find out more.