I’m going to tutor kids. I’m going to work at a soup kitchen. I’m going to do the aids ride. Volunteering is one of those things that everybody talks about—but not that many people ever get around to doing.
A few things hinder our noble intentions. The time commitment, for one; what few free hours we have between family and work and friends, we hoard. Then there’s that omnipresent fear of the unknown, and of our own capabilities. Will I be comfortable in a room full of homeless men? Who am I to teach English to a new immigrant? If I sign up now, will all the other volunteers already know each other?
And finally, there’s the vast, overwhelming landscape of need that is New York, with its thousands of organizations each attempting to help one sliver of the population. The first decision you have to make—what kind of volunteer work do you want to do?—can be the most daunting. Do you want to volunteer with kids? The sick? The homeless? And how much time can you give? Once a week? Once a month? Just once? Weekdays? Weekends? Near your home? Your work? Oh, and we need references! Do you like office work? Field work? School work? Any special skills?
Over the course of a month, I tried various volunteer opportunities, ranging in time commitment, population served, and geography. I found out a few things: it can take a lot of legwork just to become a volunteer. The experience is often discomfiting, even exhausting. And no one jumped to pat me on the back for giving up my lazy Sunday morning. Sometimes I felt like I helped; often, I wondered if I’d accomplished anything at all. Still, when it clicked—and it did—I felt more connected to my city than I ever had. Here’s what I learned.
Most organizations require at least one orientation. God’s Love We Deliver, a nonprofit that depends on an army of 1,800 volunteers to make and deliver meals to seriously ill New Yorkers, hosts both a general prep session and an additional kitchen-safety class before letting you near the knives. The bigger the volunteer operation, the more frequent the orientations.
My first effort was 826NYC (826nyc .org, contact Miriam Siddiq), the Park Slope branch of Dave Eggers’s San Francisco–based children’s program; since it’s a ten-minute walk from my apartment and its focus matches my only “special skill” (writing), it was a no-brainer to start here. It was also efficient; I filled out an online volunteer form (my weekday availability was a major plus amid the sea of weekend-warrior applicants), and a week later I attended a Sunday-morning intro session at 826’s tutoring room. After a brief program overview, I signed up right there for weekly tutoring shifts. A few hours later I got an e-mail from the education coordinator, Miriam, slotting me for Thursdays, starting immediately.
In theory, tutoring at 826 is pretty straightforward. From 3 to 5:30 p.m., Sunday through Thursday, about 40 kids, most of whom are ages 6 to 11, drop in to do homework, aided by volunteers who look ripped from the pages of The Hipster Handbook. What, I figured, could a third-grader ask that I won’t know?
Things I don’t know:
The correct answer to this question: Which form of transportation did Native Americans use before the Europeans came to America: canoe, horse, tractor, or automobile?
Still, Miriam assured us that it wasn’t important to always know the answers. It’s more coaching than teaching.
On the first day, I worked with Gabby, an adorable and very chatty second-grader, whose assignment was to compose an essay on her family outing to an amusement park. She needed a lot of help putting words to paper and spelling correctly, and I was tempted to grab her composition book and write the thing myself. But Miriam had warned us to be careful about giving answers, so I sounded out every word, from rrrriiiide to brrrrothhhherrrr to gutsssss (as in, this rrrriiiide made my brrrrothhhherrrr puke his gutsssss).
The next week wasn’t as easy. Kenya, a newcomer to 826, needed help preparing her class presentation on Anne Frank. As we went over what she knew about Anne, I realized with some shock that I’d basically be teaching Kenya about the Holocaust. I gave a quick, nervous primer on World War II. Kenya stared at me blankly and then asked, “What’s a Jew?” Wow. Not a question I ever thought I’d hear in New York, and, frankly, I didn’t know where to begin. She’s not my kid. I’m not a teacher. Did my rambling lecture on world religions stick with her?
A few of my attempts didn’t get very far. I went to an orientation at the Bowery Residents’ Committee (brc.org), a social-service agency that helps New York’s homeless through transitional housing, substance-abuse programs, and job training. But I had a tough time nailing down a volunteer shift—which happens in the overstretched, understaffed nonprofit world. The New York Restoration Project (nyrp.org), Bette Midler’s public-space beautification organization, is run in part by AmeriCorps volunteers. If they’re unavailable, the project doesn’t happen, which is why my Saturday-cleaning-the-park plan didn’t materialize. I’ll check back again in the spring.