For international residents spending Christmas in Italy, the festive period can be a lonely time, far away from friends and family. But as the saying goes, Christmas is a time for giving – and giving your time to others in need will not only be gratefully received but will make any foreigner feel more connected to their community in Italy. You’ll probably make some new friends too.
There are many different groups who would appreciate some extra help while everyone else is exchanging gifts and gorging on food and wine.
Depending where you live, you could make it your New Year's resolution to become a dedicated volunteer for one of the major global charities working across Italy, such as Oxfam, Save the Children, Amnesty International, Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) or the Red Cross. Many will ask you to complete some training and basic checks beforehand, but it will be worth it if you’re planning to volunteer long-term.
Caritas is a Catholic charity that helps the homeless, refugees and other vulnerable people. Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP
If you’re looking for something closer to home or short-term, you could contact one of the many local organizations who will offer support to vulnerable members of your own community, whether in a small village or major Italian city.
Italy’s troubled economy has taken many prisoners over the last few years, contributing to a rise in homelessness. According to the latest official statistics by national institute of statistics Istat, in 2014 there were 50,724 homeless people living in Italy’s cities, with the majority – 56 percent – in the north. They'll be spending their Christmas alone and vulnerable on the streets.
You can make enquiries about volunteering at your local homeless shelter or even at your local church, mosque or synagogue, which will be able to give you details of soup kitchens or food deliveries to the homeless and how you can help.
If you’re not keen on handing out food or pot washing, your professional skills could be put to good use. The Istituto di Medicina Solidale, an association of doctors who volunteer with the homeless, is on the lookout for nurses, administrators and fundraisers to support their activities. The charity works in various areas of the outskirts of Rome to provide medical care and food to poor and marginalized groups.
Volunteers in Rome hand out hot meals to the homeless. Photo: Tiziana Fabi/AFP
If the current Italian government’s policies on migrants make you hot under the collar, there is something you can do to help. There are many charities dedicated to helping vulnerable refugees in Italy who face hardship, isolation and uncertainty.
The Joel Nafuma Refugee Centre is a day centre for refugees in Rome. It provides a range of support, of which volunteers are an integral part. This year, the JNRC is asking Rome’s residents for donations to make up Christmas stockings for their guests, filled with a mixture of essential items and treats.
READ ALSO: How to help refugees if you live in Italy
Annika Stanley, the JNRC's fundraising and programme coordinator, says: “We are asking for special items to make up Christmas bags for our guests. It is an idea you can share with your friends, in your places of work, in schools. It is something everyone can do, young or old. All gifts will be redistributed into party bags to make them equal. Any messages of encouragement and solidarity from donors will go into the gift bags.
“The bags will be given to refugees who come to the Joel Nafuma Refugee Centre at a party there the week before Christmas. Most of it can simply be added to your trolley in the supermarket.”
Children play at a migrant community centre in Rome. Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP
Christmas is a particularly magical time for families and children. Sadly, some will be spending this time in hospital, either preparing for or recovering from surgery or treatment for various illnesses. Some may even be spending their last Christmas at a children’s hospice. As a volunteer, you could make a huge difference to these families facing unimaginable difficulties.
The Associazione per il Bambino in Ospedale was created in Milan in 1978 to assist children staying in hospital. Today children, adolescents and parents throughout Italy count on ABIO’s 5,000 trained volunteers. ABIO volunteers take care of children from the time they arrive at the hospital, helping them deal with pain as well as the struggle of being far from familiar people and places.
Children’s palliative care charity the Maruzza Foundation, which has associations across Italy, helps to support children and families with life-limiting conditions. You can help them to organize and run a range of fundraising events, campaigns or communication activities – or even hold your own fundraiser to support their work.
If you’re based in Florence, you could sign up to volunteer with the Martacappelli Foundation, named after a little girl who passed away at nine months in 2004. The charity is spearheaded by her parents Leonardo Cappelli and Bernadetta Fantugini, who are dedicated to supporting parents of patients at the intensive care unit of the city's Meyer Children's Hospital. Volunteering work includes helping with out-of-hospital events and marketing.
Animal lovers can volunteer for one of Italy’s animal shelters, such as the well-known Torre Argentina Cat Sanctuary in the heart of Rome. Home to around 150 furry felines, this shelter among Roman ruins welcomes English speakers to work as guides to show tourists around the sanctuary. Volunteers can also help out with cleaning and administrative duties. You could even become a “foster parent”.
“We are always in desperate need of 'foster parents' for immature kittens that would be at risk in the shelter,” the sanctuary says on its website.
“We look for responsible adults who can provide a safe environment for kittens (by personal preference: one or more; newborn or older kittens) until they are fully vaccinated. Fostered kittens must then be returned to the shelter to be spayed, neutered and, hopefully, homed.”
A volunteer with the Gatti di Roma, which looks after the cats of Torre Argentina. Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP
So if you’re a homesick expat feeling a little forlorn this Christmas, remember there are many out there who would appreciate your help or company, whether it’s for a few hours or the long haul.