After a couple years in New York, I’ve somewhat settled into my life here. It took awhile to get there, but recently I realized I was in a place where I was comfortable and my basic needs were met and I was asking myself “OK, so what else is there?” And what else there is, I decided, is other people.
That’s where New York Cares came in. I asked my girlfriend Rachel if she knew of good volunteer organizations to look into, and she (despite not actually having done any volunteering through it yet) recommended New York Cares.
There’s an hour (more like 45 minute) orientation that everyone has to go to in order to sign up for New York Cares projects. I went to the one on Tuesday in their Financial District home office right after work.
The speaker was this pleasant middle aged guy, a bit on the short side, with a hairy face and pleated dress pants a little too baggy in the crotch, who talked about all the great volunteering experiences he has had. I found later on the website’s “honor roll” list that he has volunteered for more than a thousand projects. Just think of that. If each project were only an hour (which is highly unlikely), he’s spent more than 1000 hours of his life devoted to service. That’s more than 41 days’ worth of hours. And if the projects average out to two hours each, that’s 82 days of his life.
Basically every day before or after work he’s out doing something – either tutoring kids, or helping in a soup kitchen, or shelving books in a prison library, or leading teams in various projects. It was inspiring to hear him speak about how helping others had become a way of life.
He showed us a short video narrated by Harvey Keitel about how you have to earn your right to call yourself a New Yorker with service. Sap that I am, I found that idea appealing – that you can earn New York points and become more legit by lending a hand to the city’s less fortunate. And that it was something that wasn’t just nice to do; you’re supposed to do it.
The speaker then showed us the website and explained the different ways you can search for projects. You can search by day, time of day, the type of work, whether it’s “good for new volunteers,” and even by subway line.
Having completed the orientation, I signed up for my first projects, including guiding people through creative writing project at a senior center in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn (a couple weeks from now), and playing games with residents at a hospital in Roosevelt Island.
The Roosevelt Island project was yesterday. I went straight from work to Roosevelt Island and took the red bus that runs the length of the island (just a quarter to ride) up to the last stop, walked through a parking lot into the hospital, handed over my driver’s license, and got a pass printed with my name and driver’s license pic to stick on my chest. It was funny having a picture of my face a foot below my actual face. The security guard pointed me in the direction of the other NY Cares volunteers, including the team leader.
The hospital itself is pretty dingy and depressing. You could see why they seek out volunteers to improve the quality of life for their residents, many of whom are confined to wheelchairs. The walls were in need of some fresh paint, and the furnishings seemed leftover from the Cold War era. The game room had dusty old novels on the bookshelf, and the from the looks of the boxes, the board games had seen a lot of action over the years.
I have a soft spot in my heart for pay phones (especially after watching the first season of The Wire a couple times), so I did like that the game room had one of those, though I acknowledge that to many people that, too, would be a depressing symbol of how these people had been forgotten or forced to make do with old things.
Unlike the building, though, the residents were full of life. One woman had a watch that stored MP3s that she plugged into a portable speaker. Pretty soon there was music, and another resident got to dancing. She took a particular interest in dancing with me and the other male volunteer, though we politely declined and kept playing UNO.
Most of the people who came played dominoes. It turns out in hospital residences, domino games are serious business, where people on the sidelines critique the players’ strategy and debates are commonplace. One man told me he grew up in the mountains of Puerto Rico where the old men play $100 games and get mad when a new player doesn’t know what he’s doing. That prompted the recurring joke whenever someone would make a mistake that they couldn’t cut it in Puerto Rico.
I played several UNO games but never did win (the woman with the music watch was more concerned about my never winning than I was). We played a variation they called “stacking,” where you can put all your cards down from the same number all at once, regardless of color, rather than playing one card at a time. It seems like a cheating way to play, though I did like playing with unlimited draws until you get the right card, and being able to put your own Draw 2 or Draw 4 card on top of the last person’s so that the next person has to draw double.
It was a fun experience volunteering there, and it only took up 90 minutes of my day, which got me excited to login and sign up for more New York Cares projects. No telling how much of a “difference” I made in that short amount of time, but it’s not like I would have done something more constructive from 7 to 8:30 on a Thursday night if left to my own devices.
The next project is tomorrow morning, doing outdoor work to beautify Gantry Plaza State Park in my neighborhood of LIC, Queens. It’s been a long time since I’ve done any weeding. Here’s hoping for nice cool weather like we have today so I’m not sweating through all my clothes.