The holidays tap into two conflicting impulses: a rampant consumerism nurtured by corporate ad campaigns and shopping lists to Santa, and a more introspective urge to give back to the community. While we can't help you score a Tickle Me Elmo (or whatever those crazy kids are into these days), we've put together a list of a few deserving and often overlooked nonprofits. Whether you're into gardening, outreach, or puppies, these groups are all worthy of your holiday cheer. And because we hope your charitable impulse lasts longer than your eggnog hangover, there are also tons of creative ways to volunteer year-round.

Free Geek

In a Revenge of the Nerds-style plot twist, Free Geek might just be the coolest nonprofit ever. Their deceptively cluttered space in Southeast houses an ingenious, efficient method of integrating recycling, education, and community development--namely, their Adoption and Build programs. The Adoption program provides a free computer to anyone who volunteers for 24 hours in their computer recycling center--which to date has salvaged over 760 tons of material that would've otherwise gone into landfills.

The computers provided to volunteers (called FreekBoxes) are built by participants in the Build program, from materials salvaged from the recycling center. Builders spent 60-100 hours learning to build a computer; after building five for Adoption program participants, they may keep their sixth! Free Geek also provides tech support to other nonprofits, serves as a community center offering free internet access, sponsors workshops, and runs a cheap electronics thrift store. Plus, they're working on developing a venue, complete with DJ booth, for more events like last year's Geek Prom. Tours of their weirdly fascinating facility are offered Monday through Saturday at noon and 6 pm.

Free Geek, 1731 SE 10th, 232-9350,

The Pals of Paws Brigade

The POPB would be a good candidate for a reality show... say "Extreme Makeover: Shelter Edition." These roving do-gooders tackle individual nuts-and-bolts projects that animal welfare organizations may not have the resources to complete on their own--like building fences, painting, cleaning, or laying gravel. POPB solicits projects from shelters and clinics in Oregon and Southwest Washington, and organizes teams of volunteers to help out. The advantage for animal lovers is POPB's flexibility; unlike most volunteer programs, there is no minimum time commitment--projects take only one day to complete and most projects require no special skills... just warm and willing bodies.

Pals of Paws Brigade, 774-3770,

Growing Gardens

Growing Gardens aims to create sustainable solutions to problems of hunger and poor nutrition--primarily by providing gardens for low-income households. Volunteers install gardens, along with support and instruction to ensure they thrive. Volunteers also teach workshops on just about any garden or food related topic, be it composting, canning, or anything in between (workshops are free to gardeners enrolled with Growing Gardens, and community members can attend for a mere $3-10 donation). Growing Gardens doesn't limit their educational efforts to adults; volunteer-run after-school garden clubs are organized for children, which require an 8-10 week commitment of one afternoon a week.

Growing Gardens, 284-8420,

Watoto Wa Dunia: Children of the World

As heartbreaking as those "sponsor a child" infomercials are, it's hard to know where your donation is actually going--to skinny big-eyed kids, or to the high costs of making heartbreaking infomercials. Watoto Wa Dunia offers similar sponsorship programs, but promises that 88% of any donation goes directly to a Kenyan family. WWD is an international grassroots organization based in Portland and in Nairobi, Kenya, and has partnered with groups in Kenya to identify and aid children in need. In addition to sponsorship, WWD volunteers work with Kenyans to encourage community development, reduce hunger, and improve healthcare. Volunteers are needed at administrative and outreach levels, while donations fund sponsorship programs and community building efforts.

Watoto Wa Dunia, 595-1786,

Write Around Portland

WRAP believes in the power of the Word. By bringing people from low-income and socially marginalized populations together and encouraging them to articulate their experiences, WRAP aims to foster empowerment and community. In partnership with social service agencies and community centers, WRAP volunteers facilitate 10-week writing workshops with different groups. At the end of each 10-week session, an anthology of stories and poems written by participants is published (anthologies are available for purchase on the WRAP website). In addition to facilitators, there are ongoing administrative and public relations-related volunteer opportunities. WRAP also accepts journal donations. Journals can be purchased for donation at Powell's on Hawthorne or In Other Words, or like-new journals can be dropped off or sent to the WRAP office.

Write Around Portland, 796-9224,

The Girls Initiative Network

While most of us tend to equate middle school with hell, it's easy to forget there are girls trapped in that same hell right now. The ladies of the Girls Initiative Network haven't forgotten, and they've devoted themselves to helping girls make it through adolescence unscathed. This happens via a range of programs that focus on identifying socially marginalized girls and connecting them with a peer network. Any girl, age 8-20, can participate in GIN activities, which range from sporting events to workshops on health related topics. Their Allies in Action program is aimed at dismantling relational hostility between women (that is, helping girls learn to actually like each other, despite a barrage of cultural messages that would teach them otherwise).



JOIN aims to provide long term solutions to the problem of chronic homelessness, by engaging them in a process to transition off the streets and into permanent housing. Last year they transitioned 496 people--and one year later, attained an 81% retention rate. JOIN helps people find housing, defrays move-in costs, and provides access to stabilizing resources after the move-in is complete. They also have a day facility, which provides a place to shower and use the phone. JOIN volunteers collect and deliver donations, there's a particular need for hygiene items, blankets, sleeping bags, underwear, and towels. Volunteers also help support people in the moving process.

JOIN, 232-2031,

The Pangaea Project

Starting next spring, 15 local teens who are economically disadvantaged but show innate leadership skills will be selected to take part in The Pangaea Project's first trek. Through seminars and mentorship, the teens will be prepped for a two-month summer work-trip to a Central American country, where they will help with a re-forestation project.

This is an idea that privileged children have enjoyed for generations: Traveling to expand their horizons and to learn about volunteerism. When the teens return to Portland, they will apply their new skills and understanding to their own communities.

This is a remarkably exciting project that will give opportunities to teens who otherwise would miss out. With only two staff members, proceeds go directly towards the teens' travel expenses.