Things have developed pretty quickly since I posted about my New York Cares volunteering orientation and first project on September 6. It was actually just two weeks ago that I had the orientation, and already I’ve participated in six projects and put in an application to become a volunteer Team Leader (interviewing at NY Cares headquarters on Tuesday after work) so that I can head projects. I’ve decided I’m interested in projects pertaining to seniors. I do like volunteering with kids, but I seem to have a stronger connection to and more skill with seniors.
I’ll summarize the five projects I participated in since the one described on my last post so that people can get an idea of the range of things you can do.
Maintain Gantry Plaza State Park
Saturday mornings are typically a time when you can count on me sleeping in, but I decided I ought to try going to sleep earlier Friday night and volunteering the next day. Fortunately my project was a short 7 train ride away at Gantry Plaza State Park, the beautiful park right on the East River with arguably the best Manhattan view you can find outside of a helicopter. It’s a state park, but the state evidently doesn’t do much of the gardening work, so a group of concerned citizens started a group to maintain the park’s flora. They recruited a New York Cares Team Leader to get more volunteers to help weed around the tall grass.
I enjoyed the sense of accomplishment you get from concrete things. When you fill up a big trash bag with weeds, you feel like you just did something that you can measure. Each weed pulled was its own little accomplishment to savor, if only for a split second. If there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s appreciating small accomplishments. The satisfaction was sullied a little when my allergies started getting to me and I started sneezing and having itchy eyes. I have almost never done any gardening, so it didn’t occur to me that this was going to be a problem for me, but now I know that the pollen really affects me when I’m exposed to a lot of it.
The leader of the volunteer group (not New York Cares but the group that recruited New York Cares) was either hilarious or off-putting, or maybe both depending on who you ask. He made a point to let all the New York Cares volunteers know that we’d be getting photographed during the two hour weeding session, but not to worry because he would throw out any pictures that weren’t flattering. He made a comment that a picture wouldn’t get used unless we looked “totally doable,” which, after a pregnant pause, elicited some looks of shock and nervous laughter. I’m paraphrasing, but the gist of it was that the pictures would get shown at fundraisers to show would-be donors how young and sexy their volunteers are, because that opens up the wallets. I’m sure he meant well and was trying to be funny — he had a kind of gentle demeanor, contrary to the douchey image you might have of him now — but the jokes weren’t landing that well.
Variety Night at Coler Hospital
I returned to the hospital in Roosevelt Island for the second time in a row last week and really enjoyed it once again. This time I got to play on the sweet Wheel of Fortune pinball machine, which was unusually generous about letting me play a long time.
I had more of a sense of comfort and familiarity the second time (which I expect to continue as I’ve RSVPed for the next several weeks), so I was able to put myself out there more and really engage with the residents. It was a rewarding experience, and I’m beginning to see how grateful the folks are to have a couple hours a week to play games and socialize on Thursday nights.
Governors Island with Jacob Riis Family Settlement
Again I woke up early on a Saturday to volunteer.
This was my first New York Cares project with kids. Just a few blocks from my apartment — and on the same street even (41st Avenue) — is a nonprofit center called the Jacob Riis Family Settlement that coordinates community events for children and seniors living in the Queensbridge Houses. New York Cares takes the kids on a fun Saturday morning field trip once a month, and this month it was a trip to Governors Island. The team leader had to leave early due to a health issue, but it was still a fun time — even a surprisingly relaxed time, considering how we had more volunteers present than kids. It was unfortunate that we missed out on taking the nice, long East River Ferry trip to the island in the morning, but at least the kids got to ride the short, free Governor’s Island Ferry, and I made a point to take the more scenic East River Ferry on the way back.
Governor’s Island is kind of a strange place, formerly a governor’s home and a military compound with lots of buildings that aren’t in use. Some of the old soldiers’ quarters have become temporary art spaces and other miscellaneous things, though, and there are rides and attractions for kids now. You can’t help but feel a sense of relaxation there on an island without skyscrapers, and where bike riders aren’t public menaces creaming you in crosswalks but reasonable and decent people sightseeing and getting some exercise by taking bike trails.
The highlight was playing 2 v 2 two-hand touch football with a couple of teenagers in our group. It’s been awhile since I’ve done any catching or throwing of footballs, but it turns out I haven’t lost all of it. Also there was the game of hide and seek played within the confines of the island’s star-shaped fort, which turns out to have lots of little nooks and crannies. We played a version I haven’t played before called “sardines” where once the first person finds the one hiding, they hide in the same spot. And the next person who finds them hides with them, and so on, until the last person finds the whole group.
On the boat ride back I made a friend, a Bolivian man named Ruben who moved to the U.S. in the 90s and has become a full citizen. We bonded over our love of Age Of Empires II, and now I play against him online (and get badly beaten).
DOROT’s 9/11 Day of Service and Sukkot Package Delivery
This wasn’t actually on 9/11 (it was Sunday), but anyway, I met up with Rachel (who I convinced to start volunteering with me) this last Saturday morning at a high school on the Upper West Side, where we were supposed to have our orientation. Someone didn’t do their job because the high school was locked, so we headed back to the DOROT headquarters to learn about the organization and get an idea of how the day would go.
DOROT is a Jewish community organization with a focus on getting younger volunteers to enrich the lives of the elderly with, among many other programs you can learn about on their website, home visits. Despite the disorganization at the beginning of the day, and the fact that there seemed to be a communication lapse between New York Cares and DOROT over what would actually be happening, this turned out to be the most rewarding experience I’ve had volunteering for NY Cares so far.
Together, Rachel and I brought food items to two apartments pretty close to each other on 23rd Street. We got to know the people, listened to their stories, and shared our own for a little over a half hour each. The two different women we met kind of had parallel lives: growing up in New York, leaving the city for greener pastures, and returning after deciding that there really was nowhere else for them. New York seems to spoil people that way.
They were interested to learn how I had moved to New York without friends, family, or a job waiting for me. It was fun to share how I made it happen and encouraging to see people in their 80s and 90s with vibrant personalities who were still chugging along and making New York work for them.
Like a lot of people, I have a substantial fear of aging and death, so I think it would be a good thing for me to spend more time with the elderly who have seen and lived through a lot more than I have and can put life in perspective. During the orientation, an employee of DOROT let the volunteers know they would have an opportunity to keep seeing the people they met on Sunday, and I’m strongly considering doing that.
Creative Writing with Seniors at Cobble Hill Health Center
I went straight from the DOROT project to Brooklyn for my second project of the day. No creative writing happened, but I still had a great time. It turns out they bill it as a creative writing session so that anyone who wants to is encouraged to do some writing, but for the most part it’s just an opportunity for people to chat and play bingo. Luckily I was tasked to play Scrabble with one of the residents who wasn’t a big fan of bingo, along with another guy who volunteers there all the time. I played some of the best Scrabble I’ve played, for which I probably have to credit my girlfriend Rachel since she got me playing Words With Friends.
I learned a little about pushing wheelchairs also, as I helped move a woman to her spot at the table and then took her up one floor on the elevator and into the dining room after the games were finished. I was worried I was going to mess up and hurt someone, so I went slow. I didn’t realize what all is involved in maneuvering them. There’s a whole strategy to it.
That’s all for this time. Let me know if you found this interesting, and I might keep blogging about my volunteer experiences from time to time. You should be able to comment on any post on The Midnight Diner without a WordPress account, but let me know if that ever turns out not to be the case.