As program coordinators at Chicago Cares, my coworkers and I often receive emails from volunteers who are interested in a particular volunteer project but are wondering if the neighborhood where the project is located is safe.

At Chicago Cares, we don’t deny that some neighborhoods have a better reputation than others. We do, however, encourage volunteers to step out of the neighborhoods they know and are accustomed to in order to volunteer where the need is. Our community partners count on Chicago Cares programs and volunteers to meet their needs, and we work very carefully to choose partner sites that are accessible by public transportation for volunteers without a car.

If you do sign up for a project in an area you’re unsure about, maybe because you read something about the neighborhood in the news or because your friend raised an eyebrow when you mentioned where you’ll be volunteering, consider taking some of the steps below to ensure that you’ll feel comfortable as you travel to the project site:

  1. Contact your volunteer leader before the project. Your leader can let you know the best way to get to a project if you don’t have a car, as well as suggest a place to park if you do have a car. Your volunteer leader might even let you know of an opportunity to carpool with another volunteer or meet in a central location to take the train together so you don’t have to travel to the site alone.
  2. Like anywhere in the city, be aware of your surroundings. In Chicago, it’s always a good idea to stay alert when walking in any neighborhood. That means pay attention to what’s going on around you, don’t text while you’re walking, and put away your iPod.
  3. Know that every neighborhood is a community. While it can be easy to deem an area a “bad neighborhood” and see only the negative, keep in mind that the clients you might work with at the project live here. This is where they go to school, go to work, and go about their daily lives, and those you meet on the street will more likely be kind and welcoming than anything else.
  4. Realize that unfamiliar doesn’t always mean unsafe. Take a few moments to learn something about the neighborhood where you’ll be volunteering. You may find out that what you thought was an unsafe neighborhood was actually just an unfamiliar one to you, and there may be much to learn about this area of Chicago.

Chicago Cares offers programs in a variety of locations in the city to accommodate volunteers’ various locations and schedules, but we hope that these tips have equipped you with the information you need to travel to a different area of the city to volunteer.

As staff members, getting to know the unique and beautiful attributes of the diverse neighborhoods within our city is one of the greatest perks our job provides. We hope that you can fall in love with ALL of Chicago through your service experiences!

Today’s post is by Education Coordinator, Martha Renken.