For many of us, winter entails a month of anticipation and exhilaration. We kick off the holiday season stuffing ourselves at a Thanksgiving table, then flock to the stores in the middle of night for Black Friday. And then to top off that weekend, there’s Cyber Monday, where we pick some more gifts sure to thrill the recipient.

We expect to hear Christmas music, to be surrounded by holiday paraphernalia in stores and to receive tons of cards in the mail. We’re accustomed to getting our trees, stringing up twinkling lights and carefully hanging ornaments on their delicate limbs. Brightly wrapped packages, Advent calendars packed with miniature chocolates and stockings so full they require sturdy holders to keep them on the mantel. We look forward to a Christmas dinner surrounded by family.

These traditions are the norm for us. But for millions nationwide, that may not be the case. The U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey reported data that an estimated 13.2 percent of the U.S. population lived below the poverty line in 2008; in California, it was 13 to 15.9 percent, or roughly 4,778,118 people — more than any other state. And as a result of the economic downturn, the estimated number of people in poverty increased by 1.1 million to 39.1 million in 2008.

I realize most of us are penny-pinching, struggling college students surviving off dollar store pasta and Costco pizza, so I’m not asking that you donate your entire bank account into the nearest Salvation Army collection tin, though the ringing bell is very gratifying. Instead, I urge you to sign up and volunteer.

You may be thinking, “I’m a (fill in the blank) major; I have no time for myself, let alone to volunteer,” but hear me out. We’ve got three weeks of vacation coming up. Even if you’re studying for the GRE, hibernating after spending the last 11 weeks in a lab or spending half of it on a bus to Canada, I’m positive you have a couple of free hours in there somewhere. So this is the perfect time to volunteer, which is just as gratifying as donating some money.

Nationally, a volunteer is worth $20.25 hourly, according to the Corporation for National and Community Service. If you had a couple extra zeros in your monthly paycheck, wouldn’t you think about donating some to your favorite charity come the holiday season? But since many of us are making minimum wage and consider Costco’s samples a dietary staple, volunteering can be our way of contributing to our communities.

This isn’t a new idea; I’m sure you’ve heard it before. Many of you probably already volunteer sometime during the year. Nearly one-fourth (24 percent)of all college students in California volunteered in 2008, ranking 37th in comparison with other states’ collegians and just below the national average of 26.3 percent.

So if you were already planning on volunteering, kudos. If you haven’t, why not sign up to serve food at a shelter or spend some time at a retirement home? The top four volunteer activities in 2008 were fund-raising, collecting and distributing food, teaching and general labor. Not down for one of those? Call around and see what organizations need help with. Trust me, the time you spend volunteering will be a highlight of your vacation.

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