“Believe that what you do matters and will make a difference in people’s lives. You don’t have to save the world in one stroke but you can make a difference one person at a time.” Anonymous

We are called to help others, yet the need is great and we often don’t know where to begin. It can be easy to fall into the trap of thinking that our efforts won’t make a difference. U.S. Census data from 2017 indicates the official U.S. poverty rate is 12.3%, which translates to 39.7 million people, or 1 in 8 people in the United States. The poor are more likely to be women, minorities, and those with lower education levels. Children are hit the hardest by poverty and there can be no doubt the adverse impact that poverty has on children’s’ health, and intellectual and social development. According to the Children’s Defense Fund“nearly 1 in 5 infants, toddlers and preschoolers between the ages of 0 and 5 were poor at the time of greatest brain development.”

If you are seeking ways to directly help those affected by poverty, what better place to start than close to home? The global poverty issue is staggering and can lead us to forget the needs of those closest to us. While programs and missions support paths out of poverty overseas, poverty exists where we live too and we need to be aware of opportunities to address the issues in our own backyards. Here are some ideas that will help you put yourself out there and open your heart to people you might not have recognized before. Poverty separates people and connecting with those in need in your own community supports God’s commandment to love your neighbor.

TALK: Ask someone about their life, really ask. No judgement, embarrassment or condescension. Just listen. Sharing their story with another person validates that person’s life. Share your own story too! It’s called shared humanity and realizing we are all created in the image of God.

VOLUNTEER: The opportunities are endless. Your community needs you: children, the mentally ill, homeless, single mothers. There are people and places who could benefit from your time, skills and story. Volunteer in a classroom or after school program to help with homework. Go to a local library and read to children or organize a book drive for a local school. Homeless shelters need people to clean, organize, cook, donate, and serve. That work exists every day and not just on holidays. You can sponsor clothing drives or raise funds to purchase hygiene and health care items. Single moms need support, time, skills and sometimes, even just help around the house. Offer to babysit, rake leaves or do an errand, just as you would do for any of your neighbors.

DONATE: All community based programs rely on financial support as well as volunteered time. Have you thought about giving up that latte or the cost of a lunch once a week and donating that money to a local nonprofit or charity? Nonprofits in your community know how to best use your donation and that small contribution can make a big difference over time. Local food banks have an ongoing need for donations and volunteers on an ongoing basis. Organize an office food drive and have teams participate or ask a local business to offer discounts with a food donation. You could even cook a weekly dinner for a family in need.

INVEST: Do you have a skill or gift that you can share? If you garden, support or volunteer at a community garden to help support single moms learn to eat healthier and prepare more nutritious meals for their families. If you are good with budgets, you could volunteer with those seeking a path to financial stability at a local Community Action Center. If books are your passion, share that with children and encourage a lifetime of reading and encourage a path to higher education that begins with literacy. Bring your gifts to the volunteer table in your community and see the difference you can make just being yourself.

CHALLENGE: Challenging the assumptions we all hold about poverty opens our hearts and minds so that we can move toward solutions. The problems are complex and it can often feel that this issue doesn’t touch us. Maybe we feel we have never met the face of poverty or a person who is one of those 39.7 million people in the U.S. If we just look to our local communities, we will see the face of poverty. If we look harder, we will see ways to help, one step at a time. Talk to people. Listen to their stories. Find ways to volunteer your time, talents or treasure and invest personally in being part of the solution to address poverty on a local level.