Hurricane Sandy prompted a welcome flood of volunteerism that may help reverse New York’s tawdry rep as one of the least mitzvah-minded cities in the country.
Under normal conditions, New York is second to last in the nation in volunteer hours logged per capita in large cities. (Only Miami outshames us.) And New York State ranks dead last in the nation in volunteerism, according to a massive 2009 survey conducted by the Corporation for National & Community Service.
Experts have argued that New Yorkers are less community minded because they work harder than anyone else just to afford NYC’s sky high cost of living: Manhattanites pay more than twice the national average for basics such as medical care, food and shelter and Queens and Brooklyn also rank in the top five most expensive places to live. Too, renters are less likely to vote than home owners - and only a third of Gothamites own their homes. In addition, people in multi-unit buildings (dominant in the city) are less likely than those occupying single family homes to work gratis for the common good.
New Yorkers are busy, but in moments of adversity, they step up, said Steve Streicher, marketing and communications director for New York Cares. When Sandy prevented New Yorkers from getting to their volunteer gigs by subway many went by bicycle or on foot, he noted.
"While the percentage may be low, the raw numbers are high,” added New York Cares director of volunteer relations Wes Moe. Last year, between 52,000 and 54,000 people volunteered for various organizations via the clearinghouse. This year, all bets are off as coordinators can barely keep pace with all the people seeking to help Sandy sufferers.
But even before Sandy, a hard core cadre of New Yorkers who know that need is always there labored steadily in the trenches for the public good. Here are four New Yorkers who were volunteering to make NYC a better place well before anyone heard of “Hurricane Sandy.”
Ruchi Patel, Boerum Hill, Brooklyn
As an occupational therapist, Ruchi Patel, 32, often works with folks struggling to cope with the devastation that follows a sedentary life – people who suffer from strokes, heart attacks, diabetes and amputations.
Mindful that disease is better prevented than treated, Patel spends several hours two Saturdays a month with 20-30 rambunctious fourth and fifth graders at P.S. 2 Meyer London School in Chinatown who belong to “Sports Explorers.” Patel helps the kids burn off calories, embrace the joy of movement and teamwork and get their competitive ya yas out in relay races, hula hoop, baskeball and about 10 different versions of dodge ball.
“I love it and I’m good at it. It brings out the kid in me!” Patel remonstrated. The kids are ecstatic when they are able to tag out one of the dozen or so adult volunteers. “Regardless of what we’re playing, they all want to win,” she noted.
Patel helps to teach her competitive little New Yorkers sportsmanship (gloating when you win isn’t nice!) patience (you can go first next time) and anger management (walk over there until you calm down, please).
“Even if I had children, I’d still do this,” said Patel. “With all the bad things happening in the world, this reminds you there are lots of good things, too,” she said.
Cindy Little, Soho
Cindy Little, 50 had been telling herself for years she was going to do something selfless. Then, on her birthday in 2009, while walking (again!) past God’s Love We Deliver, she had a self scolding. “Don’t be selfish! Just go for it! You may as well start right here in your community!”
She walked in and began what is now 1,000 hours of service, recently landing the organization’s Golden Heart Award for outstanding volunteerism. She began as a van assistant, sprinting up stairs to deliver meals to people with AIDS, Alzheimer’s, cancer and other diseases, humbled to realize that the minutes she spent in their company was often the only time all day they saw another person. When Little's bartending work slowed, she amped up her volunteering to six or eight hours a day.
Then, last year, she Little diagnosed with cancer. Recovering from a partial mastectomy, and winded and exhausted from toxic treatments, she had to cut back, and then stop, the volunteer work she loved. “I had to start getting some meals. I packed and delivered these meals and then I was a recipient of them for a period, too. I became one of the people I had been helping before,” she marveled.
Declared cancer free last month (Oct.), Little is back volunteering for God’s Love again, this time in the kitchen, recovering her strength, hoping to return to her beloved delivery gig. Volunteering, she said, “is therapeutic. It’s a good feeling, a real joy, and it alleviates stress. I’m doing everything I can (to stay healthy) and sitting around doesn’t help me. I’m scared, nervous and mad, but I’d be so much worse if I just sat in it.”
Cancer created lots of financial difficulties, acknowledged Little, but she takes comfort in the bonds she has forged in the greater human family. “People really do help other people,” said Little. "Some people give money. Some people give time. I can’t write a check, but I can give my time. Everyone should do something,” she said.
Eric McWilliams, Harlem
Eric McWilliams, 29, a treasury controller for JP Morgan, doesn’t leave his house – or turn off his Blackberry – to volunteer. Part of a novel new “iMentoring” program at Henry Street Settlement designed to help youth finish college, McWilliams meets his mentee, an 18-year-old City College student named Alex, where today’s students spend most of their time – in cyberspace.
While McWilliams and Alex will eventually have two in-person meetings, most of the pair’s communication occurs via emails on a secure internet platform provided by the organization.
“iMentoring enables people who work 50 or 60 hours a week to give back through their computer or Blackberry,” with minimal hassle and removes all excuses from those who plead “lack of time” as an excuse, said McWilliams, a veteran of many in-person mentoring programs to foster children and others. He responds to four or five emails a week” responding to questions on how to best use library resources, how to schedule time to meet multiple deadlines and how to deal with difficult people he meets on campus.
The two have gotten to know each other so well electronically McWilliams imagines little awkwardness when they finally meet. His mentee voiced discouragement at one point and McWilliams emailed him a pep talk, noting his perfect grammar and obvious intelligence. Alex wrote back thanking him, and said that knowing someone thought so highly of him had improved his mood. “I was having a very stressful day the day his message arrived because my computer kept shutting down. His message made my day. I had made his day, then his message made my day!” McWilliams exclaimed.
Anne Davis, Upper East Side
Some people might imagine that Anne Davis, 72, who was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis when she was 38, and endured painful back surgeries, would make an ideal recipient of charity. But Davis commutes to a dizzying number of volunteer gigs in her “liberating” scooter and professes astonishment at people, able bodied and not, "who don't do anything."
Volunteering, said, Davis, a widow, allowed her to focus on something other than her own trials. "You wind up focusing on other people and their issues. It doesn’t make you depressed. It makes you more positive."
An unpaid vice-president of the Center for Independence of the Disabled in NYC, Davis is also an unpaid advisor to Lincoln Center’s Department of Programs and Services for People with Disabilities and the volunteer program director for legal services in the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Several days a week she serves in the Financial Coaching Corps of the Community Service Society, helping people below the poverty line improve their financial literacy, exercise their legal rights, mend tatty credit ratings and assemble budgets so they can dig themselves way out of debt.
“I’m happier now than when I was working for money!" exclaimed Davis. "I really enjoy this. It’s meaningful and I feel like what I’m doing really makes a difference.”
It's satisfying, she said, to help motivated people "reach their financial objectives and improve their ability to participate fully in the community,” so they, too, can participate in the virtuous circle.
“My friends who are upper and middle class are so out of touch with people below the poverty line," said Davis. "They have no idea what people go through to survive in this city. . . A lot are really suffering," through no fault of their own, she said.
She likes to model her behavior by a favorite adage shared by British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill: “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.”