Volunteering is society’s most powerful anti-venom. People who volunteer are creators of “social capital” that fosters cross-class and cross-cultural bonds, say researchers who study altruism. As a result, stereotypes are demolished, understanding is increased, friendliness flourishes and communities are super-charged.
Not incidentally, volunteers often feel a sense of gratification for, in a weird sense, playing God: By engaging in selfless acts, they proactively help to create the kind of compassionate world they desire to inhabit.
A desire to help fellow citizens, improve the quality of life in the Big Apple, and to use free time productively were the most frequent reasons volunteers cited for giving of themselves, according to a New York Cares survey. Interestingly, the more active the volunteers, the more likely they were to feel satisfied with their own lives, and to trust other people.
In this season of Thanksgiving, amNewYork would like to show appreciation to all those who give back to the city. We spoke with five New Yorkers who carve out time from their pressured, busy lives to help make their city a better place to live.
The Flood Sisters
The Flood sisters of Pleasantville leveraged the power of the Internet to help kidney patients find mitzvah-minded donors.
After Heather Flood, 34, and twin sisters Jennifer and Cynthia, 32, found their ailing father a kidney on Craigslist (he was successfully transplanted in 2008), they had a brainstorm: Why not create a kidney “Match.com” for patients and potential donors?
They founded the Flood Sisters Kidney Foundation of America (www.floodsisters.org), located on Park Avenue. With 108,000 people on waiting lists for a cadaveric kidney, the living donor registry helps to whittle down the official list of patients waiting for cadaveric kidneys — and, ultimately, save lives.
Brenda Letford, 35, a single mother from Canarsie whose kidneys were destroyed by lupus, is scheduled to be transplanted next year, courtesy of a similarly single mom in California who was moved by her plight.
“Without this site, I would never have found a donor,” said Letford.
Losing her health, her marriage and her job to her disabling disease had plunged Letford into depression, but discovering that there are Good Samaritans willing to surrender a part of themselves to assist a stranger has given her not just a new life, but a new reason to live.
Advocating for the victims of sexual assault and domestic violence, “gives me hope for the whole human race,” said Javauni Forrest, 22, a Harlem resident who has been on overnight call three or four times a month for the St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Crime Victims Treatment Center since December.
Working 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. with crime victims brought to emergency rooms, he helps survivors regain a sense of control by walking them through decisions involving treatment and legal procedures, and provides referrals to shelters, counseling and continuing medical care.
It’s an honor to be trusted by someone during one of the worst times of their lives, explained Forrest, who feels fortunate to behold the resiliency and resourcefulness of people facing horrific hardship.
Personal and sexual violence is “so close to me,” he said. “Members of my own family have been the victims of domestic violence and I have friends who have been raped.”
A Hunter psychology student, Forrest’s volunteer work has been both a professional and personal boon, confirming his desire to be a psychologist or psychiatrist.
“It’s helped me to become a much better listener, and to be more open with my own feelings,” said Forrest. “If someone can tell me their feelings when they’ve been raped or beaten,” he asked, “how can I hold back my own?”
“Years ago, the Bronx was really desolate and abandoned, run down and violent,” recalled Tanisha Hunter, 31, an electrician’s apprentice who lives in the West Bronx.
Hunter, who has been volunteering for three years at the Jacqueline Denise Davis Community Garden in Morrisania, is an integral part of its revitalization — one seed, leaf and twig at a time.
“I live in the Bronx. I want to give back to the Bronx,” she said.
Giving back comes reflexively to Hunter, who also volunteers at college fairs and helps paint public buildings. In the case of the vacant lot that is now a verdant, trellised oasis, the dirt is its own reward: “I love plants and the outdoors!”
Hunter felt estranged from nature living in a one-bedroom apartment with no outdoor space and she found a free horticultural education courtesy of the garden.
She cherishes the warm, comfortable feeling of camaraderie when a dozen volunteers dig, pull, clip and plant together to create a thing of beauty and utility. “Their spirits lift me right up,” said Hunter.
The biggest misconception about volunteering, she said, is that pre-existing skills are needed in order to make a meaningful contribution. “I have a horrible green thumb,” she confided.
Attorney Neil Schaier, 42, is an uber volunteer.
Wednesday mornings from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m., he’s putting together meals for God’s Love We Deliver. Monday nights, he’s at the Ali Forney Center in Astoria helping homeless kids. Oh yeah: For the last seven years, he’s been a Big Brother to an Astoria boy named Steven, now 14.
Volunteering is like exercising, said Schaier, who lives in Chelsea: “If you like it, you make the time.”
And Schaier really likes volunteering. He said it takes him out of himself, gives him perspective and makes him feel like a part of New York’s crazy quilt human family.
After an emotionally intense spell working with homeless kids, or thinking about the recipients destined to receive the meals he has packed, “there’s no way you can leave thinking your problems are as serious as they were the night before.”
Exquisitely conscious of his good fortune — a Long Island upbringing that included an intact family and financial assistance with college — Schaier praises volunteering for expanding his understanding of the city’s varied inhabitants and for making him better informed as to how political decisions affect people on the ground.
Volunteering makes him more compassionate and understanding, Schaier reflected. In fact, said the certiorari attorney for the city Law Department’s Tax and Litigation division, working on the front lines of human need, “has made me willing to pay more taxes.”
Jacirys Dominguez, 26, a financial coordinator for the Graduate School of Architecture at Columbia, sees her Tuesday night stints at the Bottomless Closet as a repayment of a debt and an investment in the future.
As a kid in the South Bronx (“our police precinct had the highest crime rates in the nation”), a charity stepped in to provide her with a parochial education and to give her a mentor who worked at Morgan Stanley.
Now, every Tuesday night, the South Bronx resident revamps resumes and coaches economically challenged women about how to ace job interviews. She also works with them to purchase professional attire from the Closet’s crammed racks to help them succeed in the workplace.
“We have to work harder as minorities,” to ensure economic security, said Dominguez, who is grateful for the women who taught her the secret semiotics of how to dress and behave to ensure professional success.
After being laid off from IBM in 2008, “I definitely identify with these women,” said Dominguez. While unemployed, she volunteered at the Closet several days a week.
Recently, Teyu Shu, 19, of Ridgewood, Queens, who had just landed her first job as an assistant career counselor, was trying on three professional ensembles Dominguez had plucked out for her.
Women like Dominguez, said Shu, “make us feel better not just outside, but inside.”