New York Cares volunteering Pt. 3

My friends seem to like my accounts of volunteering through New York Cares, a fantastic volunteering organization that has allowed me to help out on a wide variety of projects all over the city. So here I am writing a third edition to catch everyone up on my experiences since I wrote last time. There’s a lot of ground to cover since it’s been about three weeks since my part 2, so I might sum things up more quickly this time.

Variety Night at Coler Hospital

My third time on the project, people really started to recognize me, and coming to this project felt like part of a fun weekly routine. The fact that one of the Team Leaders mentioned to me that she might be stepping down in the coming months, paired with how much I enjoy playing games with the residents, led me to take the plunge into applying for and becoming a Team Leader. More on that later.

Meal Service at Church of the Village

downloadThis is the second project where I brought Rachel with me, and so far it’s been her favorite. It started off with making quesadillas in the kitchen. A staff of regular volunteers, many with the church, had already been hard at work on food prep by the time we got there. I don’t have a lot of confidence in my cooking skills, so it was satisfying to be thrust into the position of helping assemble quesadillas to be cooked and to get it done. With Rachel’s guidance, I think I did an OK job.

Once we ran out of quesadilla supplies, it was time to get familiar with my station in the food line. I ended up being the coffee and hot tea guy while Rachel stood next to me and served pudding and fruit cocktail. It was interesting to see the wide variety of people who come in for meals. Some of them are old pros who know the drill while others seem more bright-eyed and needlessly apologetic. I say needless because I’m not there to judge; I’m there to serve. But you really see how society weighs on the people with the least resources, that they have to feel guilt for accepting help from strangers.

No one wants to wait in long lines outside a church to be able to go in and have a hot meal.  The people at the Church of the Village and places like it would rather be able to provide for themselves, and maybe someday they will, but for the meantime they still have to survive.

I believe it’s important to see these people, the less fortunate, and to hear their stories. If you open up your heart, their stories will change you.

Team Leader Interview

On Sept. 24 I went again to the New York Cares office in the Financial District right after work. I had a pleasant walk there that put me in a good frame of mind for the interview. The interview questions are the kind you expect, and I answered all of them thoroughly and with confidence. I recommend feeling confident at all your interviews. I have a hard time with interviewing sometimes as I tend to be nervous, but maybe it was the walk, or the nice guy who interviewed me, or the fact that the stakes were low, but I was really at ease and able to open up about my experiences and what I thought goes into being an effective Team Leader. So he approved me, and I signed up for the orientation, which I’ll write about a little later.

Variety Night at Coler Hospital


Fourth time there. I let the Team Leader know I had interviewed to become a Team Leader and would be receiving my training orientation soon. One of the volunteers brought Phase 10, which was a welcome new game (you can only play dominoes and Uno so many weeks in a row before you’re ready for something new). I hadn’t played it in years and remembered why I enjoyed it so much in college. Too bad we only started playing it toward the end of the night so the residents didn’t have quite enough time to get into the swing of it.

English Conversation Partners

This was almost definitely my most challenging project to date. The concept is that volunteers and second language English speakers meet on the third floor of a library on the Upper East Side each Saturday morning to help the participants brush up on their conversational English. In theory the people are supposed to be intermediate speakers, but it turned out the ones who sat at my table were not.

I was lucky to have a more knowledgeable volunteer who is a regular there with me for most of the two hours. Without her, I really would have been lost. True, it was really interesting to learn about the lives of the immigrants and visitors who came that day, but it was hard to communicate, and by the end I was really struggling to come up with things to talk about.

The eccentric Team Leader was a second language learner himself, I believe from West Africa, who was really enthusiastic. He had printed out some really difficult material for us to cover — basically a SAT style reading prompt where people were supposed to be able to figure out from context clues what advanced level English vocab words meant. If I remember correctly, the passage compared the American Revolution with the French Revolution, and the vocab words were “myriad” and “stratification.” So yeah, we’re talking words and concepts the majority of American high school students would struggle with, not to mention folks who had just come to New York months ago from places like Russia, Bulgaria, Indonesia, and China, where English isn’t exactly a language you could learn intuitively because it’s related to your mother tongue.

Supposedly some of the people at the other tables were fine with it, but my group mostly discussed things like what to say when you’re ordering at McDonald’s or how to ask the guy up front where to find a toothbrush in a CVS. It didn’t help that the Team Leader kept interrupting us during conversations and pushing people to sign up for the website he started. Also he had bad breath.

I tried hard but felt like I did poorly, although people did thank me at the end. Now I’m a little discouraged from doing projects like this one, which are evidently not quite in my wheelhouse, but I did register to give one in a different location a shot. Here’s hoping it works out a little better.

Team Leader Training

Another week, another visit to the New York Cares Office. On October 2, I was fingerprinted and learned all about the policies for being a Team Leader. The instructor was really engaging and had good examples from his own experience to help demonstrate the different scenarios you can run into as a Team Leader. He emphasized that you’re definitely not in it alone. The Community Partners (representatives from the project sites) and Program Managers (employees of NY Cares) are there to guide Team Leaders with questions as they come up.

It was liberating to learn that you don’t really have to know all the ins and outs of a project to become a Team Leader. You learn from meeting with the Community Partners and are empowered to think of yourself as an organizer of volunteers more than the foremost expert on whatever the subject matter of the project may be.

That said, I still don’t see myself getting involved in projects that I know nothing about, but it’s good just to know that I don’t have to feel like I’m a master knitter to Team Lead a knitting project, or a pro athlete to Team Lead a kids sports project.

It was neat to see what other kinds of people get into volunteering and chat with them for awhile, comparing notes about the kinds of projects they have participated in.  Also there was free pizza to be had, which never hurts.

Variety Night at Coler Hospital

Fifth time in a row! Only this time it was not a success. I finally got a taste of what it’s like when a project has to be cancelled. The atrium where we have the weekly Variety Night was closed for cleaning. The lights were on inside, so you could see through the glass that the furniture had been moved all askew and a floor buffer was just kinda chilling in the middle of the room. A guy from the cleaning staff came over and told me and the Team Leader (all the other volunteers ended up cancelling at the last minute, including Rachel who was sick) that we would not be able to use the room at all that night. Orders from his supervisor. So somewhere along the line, word didn’t get passed to the right people that we had a weekly engagement there. Of course in all the time we stood there trying to figure out what to do next, we never saw any actual cleaning work get done. I’ve been telling myself it’s because they had just applied a new layer of wax to the floor and had to wait before going back into the room.

Some of the residents saw us while the Team Leader was making phone calls and sending emails to cancel the event, and they became outraged when we shared the news that they wouldn’t get to play any games that week. It was sad to see them upset, but it did reinforce the sense that the Variety Night is really something people look forward to all week as a bright spot for them. As I alluded to in a previous post, the hospital is kind of a dreary place, and I can see why the residents are happy to have us there.

Game Night At Beth Abraham

Scrabble PiecesThis is a project just like the one in Roosevelt Island that I mentioned above, except it’s on Friday nights instead of Thursdays, and it’s at a hospital in the Bronx. It was a trek to get there and back, but it was fun to meet a totally new group of volunteers and residents than I have met before and reminded me once again that playing games with seniors is something I’m good at and enjoy.

Truth be told, I signed up for it because of a promotion New York Cares announced for new volunteers. Do at least one project in all five boroughs in a two-month period, and you get two CityPasses to check out museums and attractions for free. I’m looking forward to finally going up in the Top of the Rock and to visiting Ellis Island.

Beth Abraham qualified as my Bronx project, and even though it’s not close to where I work or where I live, I wouldn’t be surprised if I ended up volunteering there again. I got to play Scrabble, helping out a guy who had a hard time reaching the board and teasing the woman who is the resident Scrabble whiz. She destroyed me. I think she ended up with 175 points while I ended up with 106.

Autumn Work Party

The next day I went ahead and completed my Staten Island project. The trip to the Bronx was a cinch compared to this one. Between the trains, express buses, and local buses, it took probably 3 and a half hours of total travel time. It turns out that if you’re taking an express bus to SI and you live in Queens, you end up passing through four out of five boroughs: take the train from Queens to Manhattan; pick up the express bus downtown; the bus goes through the Brooklyn-Battery tunnel from Lower Manhattan into Brooklyn and then down the BQE; then finally across the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge into S.I.

Anyhow, that’s just a lot of transit talk to get across the idea that Staten Island is considered remote for a reason. It takes an extremely long time to get there, and then once you’re there, your train options are limited so you more than likely have to use buses.

My project was to weed plots in a little community garden run by a Moravian Church. It was amazing how almost all the New York Cares volunteers there were local college kids fulfilling a volunteering requirement. Apparently the project lured them because it got tagged as “family friendly,” and kids under age 18 can only go to those ones even though they’re in college. I didn’t realize so many college kids were 17, but it turns out to be the case.

It was really interesting listening to them and realizing how long ago freshman year of college was. The fall of 2005 was eight years ago. You know what that means? I’ve been out of college now for as long as I was in college. It’s an amazing thought, but I guess it makes sense. I do feel a lot older and more experienced now than I felt then. I think to some extent there is a limit to how mature you can be if you’re still relying on mom and dad to provide your home base. And not only did I move out of my childhood house for good, but I moved across the country. So yeah, I’ve put some years on myself since graduating college — certainly since being a freshman.

The garden was pretty well tended to, so most of the weeds were really small and very simple to pull out. I have to admit I don’t know how much of an impact I made that day, especially considering how I accidentally pulled out a couple of tiny lettuce plants that had only been in the ground a week and so were no larger than the weeds I was pulling. I felt a little bad, but a little girl who evidently is there all the time wanted me to feel much worse, trying to shame me and letting me know how so-and-so (a church member who was there that day, and it was her plot) wouldn’t be happy I did that. So I found so-and-so and let them her know what happened, that I made an honest mistake.. I could tell she wasn’t happy, but she held it in. But I mean, I’m a volunteer. What did she expect? This is maybe only the fourth or fifth time I’ve done gardening work in my whole life. And lettuce plants look like weeds when they’re small, in my opinion.

So I crossed off Staten Island from my list of five boroughs and learned once again that gardening projects aren’t where I shine the brightest.

Ambassador at St. Francis Xavier

My last project for this blog post is the third project where Rachel has joined me. St. Francis Xavier is a Catholic church in the area between Union Square and the Flatiron District that has a massive meal service each Sunday, around a thousand meals served each week. Rather than signing up to cook the meal, serve the meal, or clean up afterward, we signed up to be ambassadors. Basically that entailed chatting with folks in the lines outside the church waiting for their turn to go in and have hot meals.

The lines have a tendency to move slowly, so it makes sense that the church would want to have volunteers outside keeping people company. I have a skill I can turn on that allows me to make conversations with random people I have never met, and this project engaged that facet of my personality. Rachel is not as outgoing, so she had a harder time (she confessed to me that she preferred the food service project at Church of the Village), but I think the two of us together made an effective team at engaging groups of people waiting in line.

Not everyone wants to talk. Sometimes you say hi, and they say nothing or just nod, and you move on down the line and just keep being friendly and open. Eventually you find someone who wants to talk, and then you get the pleasure of meeting someone new and maybe hearing their story, or hearing about things that interest them. It’s another chance to learn about another person and strengthen your empathy muscle.

This post is already plenty long, so I’ll just leave you with a sampling of the topics discussed:

  • philip seymour hoffman7traveling to Ireland
  • Madonna and Whitney Houston
  • who’s better between A$AP Rocky and Kendrick Lamar
  • Philip Seymour Hoffman is a nice guy but allegedly a slob when you meet him in person
  • the desire to travel to the Dominican Republic to bring home a wife
  • the federal government taking money out of the food stamps program
  • artificial intelligence in iPhones
  • the weather (misty and cool, which most people liked)
  • good parks to visit in the city
  • watching football games in Best Buy
  • how long it takes before you can call yourself a New Yorker (one guy said at least 15 years)
  • finding a job when you have multiple felonies
  • white church versus black church
  • rumors about public housing being privatized at some point and why that would not be a good thing
  • what’s for lunch (spaghetti)
  • strategies to get the most out of the meal service, including packing up a hot lunch in your own tupperware, getting back in line, and doing it again (which is allowed)
  • Westboro Baptist Church, the KKK, and Hell’s Angels
  • Great White sharks versus orca whales
  • global warming

2 thoughts on “New York Cares volunteering Pt. 3

  1. Pingback: New York Cares Volunteering pt. 4 | themidnightdiner

  2. Pingback: New York Cares volunteering pt. 5 | themidnightdiner

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