I've always had this struggle with being sympathetic toward homeless people. I quickly pass them when they ask for money, I easily ignore their pleas for help. After all, no one knows their story, no one knows who they are or what their needs actually are. It's hard to associate sympathy with the unknown. I don't cry when reading the obituaries, so why should I feel obligated to give my money to a complete stranger, simply on the basis that they have a tough life? I don't know you, and I'm sorry that your life sucks but I don't owe you anything. I shouldn't feel bad about what I have versus what you do not.

Or should I?

Don't get me wrong. I'm humbled by the great life that I have. Fortunately, I have a great family, the support of friends, a great career, and what I feel is a good head on my shoulders. Does that make me better than the person on the street asking for money? No. We're all human beings. I just don't know you, I don't know your problems. But on the other hand, ignorance is not bliss. I can't just ignore a problem and assume it will resolve itself. I've come to terms with the fact that many homeless men and women have severe mental disabilities that prevent them from working, sustaining familial relationships, and being able to function within society. They're not all lazy deadbeats. Some are, but most are not. Most need actual help. And with Mayor Daley closing down several mental institutions in the Chicago metro area, many of the displaced individuals will turn to the streets. It's sad and disturbing.

While I can't give every street person my money or attention, I can do something. Anything, really. I have the time, ability, and desire to help the homeless. So why wouldn't I do it? I'm on it.

I've also decided that I don't do nearly enough volunteering in general. Sure I'll donate to charity every once in awhile, but that's the easy route. That's the typical, American route--solving problems with money instead of hard work, dedication, time, and commitment.

So, I'm trying to choose a volunteer avenue. I applied at Big Brothers/Big Sisters and there's a host of other opportunities I'm interested in, as seen below. Any Chicago readers may want to take note of some these great volunteer activities:

THE CHILDREN’S ROOM, at 69 West Washington, #3300, needs volunteers every weekday morning and afternoon for reading to children, creating arts and crafts and assisting with snacks. Minimum age to volunteer: 13. Maximum group size: 15. Contact Sylvia McCullum, 312-603-1945, SmcCull@cookcountygov.com.

COMMON PANTRY, located at 3744 N. Damen Ave., is looking for English and Spanish speaking volunteers to assist with food distribution on Wednesdays. Contact Debbie at 773-327-0553 or commonpantry@hotmail.com

DEBORAH’S PLACE, 2822 West Jackson, 1530/1532 North Sedgwick, 1456 West Oakdale, 4115 West Ogden provides housing for women who are homeless. They need volunteers for food preparation, cleaning projects, tutoring, special events and more. Minimum age to volunteer is 16. Volunteers 16-18 must be accompanied by an adult. Maximum group size: 10. Contact Sarah Letson, 773-638-6579. Web site: http://www.deborahsplace.org/.

INSPIRATION CAFE, pantry and soup kitchen at 4554 North Broadway, Suite 207, needs volunteers for food preparation, manual labor, administrative, computer, education, maintenance and special events on mornings, afternoons and evenings every day of the week. Volunteer orientations are twice monthly. Maximum group size: 20. Contact 773-878-0981, ext. 231, volunteer@inspirationcorp.org.

LAKEVIEW PANTRY (EAST SITE), 3831 North Broadway, needs English, Spanish, Russian, Korean and Romanian speaking volunteers Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday mornings and afternoons. Minimum age to volunteer: 18, unless accompanied by an adult. Maximum group size: 2. Contact Erin Stephens, 773-517-4813, erin@lakeviewpantry.org,

LAKEVIEW PANTRY (WEST SITE), 1414 West Oakdale, needs English and Spanish speaking volunteers for distributing food, manual labor, driving, assisting clients, translating, computer, window display design Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday mornings. Minimum age to volunteer: 18. Maximum group size: 2. Contact Erin Stephens, 773-517-4813, erin@lakeviewpantry.org

LASALLE SENIOR CENTER, locating 1111 North Wells, Suite 500, is looking for volunteers for food preparation/serving and volunteer drivers. Volunteers can come in for 1-2 hour sessions between 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Wednesday. There is also need for those who are willing to assist in driving a 14-passenger van once for day and evening trips to local grocery and retail stores. Contact Jan Kroeschell, 312-573-8841, jkroeschell@lasallestreetchurch.org.

LESLIE’S PLACE, a shelter at 1014 North Hamlin needs volunteers for preparing meals, driving, assisting clients, Tuesday through Friday. Maximum group size: 2. Contact Leslie Brown, 773- 342-8384, LesliesPl@aol.com.

NEW MOMS, INC., a shelter at 2825 West McLean, needs English- and Spanish-speaking volunteers for distributing food, assisting clients, child care and the staff store every day. Minimum age to volunteer: 16. Maximum group size: 10. Contact Brian Genzink, 773-252-3253, x33, bgenzink@newmomsinc.org.

REST SHELTER, 941 West Lawrence, needs volunteers for food preparation, administrative, medical every day. Minimum age to volunteer: 16. Maximum group size: 15-20. Contact Kari Aosved, 773-784-0909, kaosved@restweb.org