The Fat Girl's Guide to Volunteering
Posted by Angela in Sports + Recreation
Gulf Coast, 2006: The day we built a playground with KaBOOM!

I was racking my brain Wednesday night for a way to kick off this week’s Guide (okay, truthfully I was watching “American Idol” at my friend’s house), when the show’s annual philanthropy-fest, “Idol Gives Back,” aired a piece that outlined the important work done by Feeding America. “I would love to work for Feeding America,” my friend said wistfully, “but I’d feel too weird about being a fat girl working for a hunger relief organization.” And just like that, this intro wrote itself.

Volunteering: The great equalizer

Here we are on Earth Day, smack dab in the middle of National Volunteer Week -- what better time to tackle the perceived notion that fat girls are somehow lazy and inactive? The amazing plus-sized beauties in my world lead rich, diverse lives that include: horseback riding, travel, tennis, gardening, motherhood, yoga, cycling, softball and -- for some -- healthy doses of community involvement. Yet for some of us, it's tougher to overcome the internalization of the notion that we "can't" do something because of our weight. Maybe it's because many of us equate volunteering with food pantries and soup kitchens, and anything involving food feels like it draws attention to us. Or maybe it's because we fear not being able to keep up with the energy levels of those we'd be joining in whatever effort we chose. Martin Luther King once said:

Everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. . . . You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love.

Granted, Dr. King didn’t include “You don’t have to have a BMI lower than 25 to serve,” but his point is clear: Service is the great equalizer. Rich, poor, young, old, Ph.D. or high school dropout, fat or thin -- it doesn't matter who you are. It only matters that you want to lend a hand. And ladies, there are 10 times as many ways to pitch in as there are those of you reading these words right now.

Beyond food banks

It's difficult to pinpoint how food became the default association when we think of volunteerism; perhaps it's because hunger is such a universal issue. Or maybe it's because, for those new to community service, spending a few hours packing food boxes or serving hot meals offers an easy, single-day way to get involved. Regardless, if you're looking to avoid any perceived stigma (your own or otherwise) about being a fat girl working with food, don't worry -- there are scores of other ways to pitch in.

Our recent Guide to Spring Cleaning Your Closet mentioned donating your ill-fitting clothes to charitable organizations, and that's just the tip of the iceberg. Opportunities to make a difference exist all around you -- at your child's school, through your church or as part of neighborhood clean-and-green efforts. If you're not sure where to begin, try searching VolunteerMatch or, online databases of volunteer openings that are as easy to use as plugging in your zip code and area of interest. lets you be even more specific in searching its 18,000+ opportunities by selecting specific issue areas or skills used. Another great option to investigate is HandsOn Network, which includes 250 Action Centers in 16 countries. From big city organizations like Chicago Cares, New York Cares and Hands On Atlanta to smaller community hubs like Volunteer Center of Johnson County (Kansas) and HandsOn Bay Area (California), these centers are your local volunteer experts and can help connect you with a meaningful project that addresses critical need in your own community.

Find your volunteering niche

Because there are literally thousands of charities and volunteer opportunities out there, this is one of the few areas in life where you can essentially write your own ticket. So pick a cause that’s near and dear to your heart. Local animal shelters and adoption centers can almost always use volunteers to maintain the facilities and to walk, socialize and care for the animals. Various services for veterans rely heavily on volunteer assistance, and many youth organizations are starved for volunteers to staff their educational and recreational programs. Or you could pair good deeds with a current health or fitness goal and raise money while walking or running. Many 5K or 10K events also include a walking option; some are even geared toward families. Find an event near you by searching the Runner's World database (look for walk/run combos).

If you're looking for an activity that doesn't require a lot of mobility or physical exertion, consider donating blood -- zero exertion and free cookies! If you're a knitter, take on a few projects that will benefit homeless or underprivileged kids or adults. Not crazy about needles of either kind? Become a trained domestic violence hotline volunteer, provide some companionship or a game of Bingo at the local senior center, or become involved as an ESL volunteer or youth tutor. In addition, nearly every nonprofit organization, large or small, welcomes willing, enthusiastic volunteers who can provide administrative or reception support. Your professional skills may come in handy, as well; try scanning the "get involved" or "support" pages for organizations you respect to locate their wish lists, which will often include services like PR, marketing, graphic design or accounting. Basically, if you have the time, an organization will gratefully find a way to use it.

Fight the “fat girls can’t…” notion

One of the scariest and most fulfilling experiences of my life took place in October 2006 in Biloxi, MS. A year after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the gulf coast, I finally had the time and money to spend a week participating in the rebuilding efforts. Having convinced a friend to join me, we made arrangements with Hands On Gulf Coast (now Hands On Mississippi), booked our flights, and spent a week eating communal meals and sleeping in bunk beds, dorm-style, surrounded by dozens of other volunteers.

Anyone who knows me will tell you that I don't take naturally to physical activity and hard labor; I’m an indoor, creature comforts kind of girl, and I’ll choose the escalator over the stairs every single time. So the idea of spending my vacation willingly rising at dawn and working until my feet ached and my muscles screamed was a huge step outside my comfort zone. I had several moments leading up to the trip where I thought, "Oh my God, I'm not going to be able to do this. I'm too overweight and out of shape. People will laugh at me. It's going to be too hard." But I'd spent the whole year wishing I could do something to help, and thankfully, that conviction overshadowed the massive doubts I was having.

The days were long and the work was hard. We spent two work days working on the community gardens maintained by HOGC, hauling fence portions and bags of Quikrete, digging post holes, hanging and setting fencing, painting the fence. Another day was spent raising a playground from the ground up with KaBOOM! (see photo, above). When we arrived on site that morning, there was an empty lot behind the school and a ton of supplies, tools and play equipment components; when we left that afternoon, 200 people from all over the county had created a full-scale playground for the kids to enjoy. I worked alongside the school's principal atop a 10-foot-tall pile of playground mulch. I pitchforked mulch until my arms felt like they would rip off in protest. It was one of the most fulfilling days of  my life. That trip taught me that my weight may make some things more challenging (I've never popped so much Aleve), but it doesn't define me unless I let it.

Celebrate the benefits of giving back

You don't have to hop a plane to the nearest disaster zone or become Queen of the Mulch Pile to prove that fat girls can do anything they want to do. All you need is the willingness to step outside of your daily routine for a few hours here and there. Volunteer by trying something new or doing what you do best. Either way, the boost of accomplishment and confidence is one we could all use. Plus, if you're shy about meeting people, community service is a terrific way to ease into a new network of friends with similar interests and passions. There's even been research done to suggest that volunteering makes us healthier. The only question left is: How will you choose to get involved?

How do you stay involved in your community? Has your weight ever held you back? Tell us in comments.