Anne Richards’ trajectory of community involvement started off on a familiar path: as the mother of four boys, she was extremely involved in the book sales, the PTA meetings, and so forth, until life took a devastating turn.
After a major car accident, her youngest son (then 13) was given “less than a zero chance of survival,” Richards said. “If he did, impossibly, his state would be comatose, a vegetable at best.”
Mikey, now 21, is not only alive but thriving, entertaining bedside visitors for the first time in recent weeks and enthusiastically collecting badges from the region’s bravest. (If it’s not from a “hero” like a firefighter, he’s not into it, his mother said.)
After a year and a half between seven hospitals, Richards, rising to the role of “mother bear” against all the odds, fought and won the battle to get him home by Christmas, 2008. But Mikey required a prohibitively expensive medical bed. The director of AFYA (which means “good health” in Swahili) happened upon Richards’ Craigslist post and made a very special delivery. Richards has since become involved with this organization aimed at redistributing medical equipment to countries in need, among so many others causes and organizations she supports.
As Mikey’s full-time caregiver she is unable to get a job. From his bedside, however, she has two major means of outreach: computer and phone. During Hurricane Sandy when she co-founded Walk a Mile in Our Shoes, Richards realized she really had an aptitude for disasters. “It’s called ‘trauma mode,’” she said, “I sure as heck knew what it was like to have my world destroyed in a heartbeat. I try to turn the negative into a positive if I can. Volunteering is healing.”
Alisa Kesten, Executive Director of Volunteer New York! (formerly the Volunteer Center of United Way), categorized disasters as the most critical time when volunteers kick into action, but noted that we are privy to the collective greatness of small acts of generosity here in the river towns every day. She confirmed that people are extremely invested in supporting each other. “We really are a community that cares about one another,” she said.
It was the organization’s move to Tarrytown headquarters in 2010 that has “definitely given us more of a boots on the ground perspective,” Kesten said. “We are seeing just how supportive and strong service is in the river towns. The community comes together to solve local problems; there’s a lot of collaboration.”
While Kesten said there’s no solid volunteering statistics on the county itself, or this string of hyper-involved river towns, she is certain we stand out in a state that is, surprisingly, traditionally bottommost on the list. (A study from the Corporation for National and Community Service ranks New York and Louisiana lowest for its volunteering rates between 2011-2013; Utah and Idaho enjoy top spots). Kesten has found that the pockets of strong engagement in the state are linked to places where businesses support community involvement. She estimated that with more than 1,600 nonprofits in Westchester and a thriving business community, volunteering is strong here.
While Volunteer New York! prepares for future unknown disasters and addressing ongoing hunger – establishing a virtual center to better pair volunteers with immediate needs in the wake of another crisis, and applying for a state grant to help staff a trio of tri-country food pantries – the organization’s immediate focus this month is coordinating an exhaustive list of public events for the upcoming annual MLK Day of Service.
Kesten expects this year’s events will hold particular resonance in the wake of national protests over several deaths of unarmed blacks by police. “Given everything going on around the country I hope people will realize how valuable the lessons of Dr. King are, now more than ever. People do want positive change and for good reasons.”
Change happens when we come together, she said. Especially, when we come together with people we wouldn’t normally interact with, which is often the case when we volunteer.
Westchester is a particularly dynamic place, if challenging, because it has both extreme wealth and its lack side by side. “The challenge here in Westchester is the huge gap between people who have so much and people who don’t,” Kesten said. “The need is just as important here; you just don’t see it.”
With a small army of 700 volunteers supporting a database of about 500 nonprofits, Volunteer New York! is always in grow-mode, trying to bolster its human resources. Play around with its search widget, and you can find volunteering ops perfectly tailored to you, or register your organization to get the help it needs.
“A kind heart is a fountain of gladness, making everything in its vicinity freshen into smiles.” - Washington Irving
Even Sleepy Hollow Country’s legendary man of letters knew the power of lifting all boats. There’s no question volunteering does good for others, though it’s arguably the giver who benefits most of all.
Maybe there’s no such thing as altruism, as selfless acts are probably never really selfless, nor should they be. Kesten urged volunteers to follow their interests and skill sets, and said these activities should feature prominently on resumés.
Volunteering can be a key pathway to finding employment when employment can be so hard to find. Nationalservice.org cites statistics that volunteers are 20 percent more likely to get a job. For those without a high school diploma, volunteering types are 51 percent more hirable than their peers.
That said, there’s no question that while so many among us do so much, there’s always a few who do a lot, perhaps too much. Volunteer fatigue is a real risk. Though Kesten of course isn’t in the business of telling folks to say no, her organization does promote balance. The center counsels nonprofits to remember to honor and respect their volunteers, set exact times for the work, and rotate through help and tasks to keep things fresh. “Celebrate your volunteers and create opportunities to help that are meaningful but not everlasting,” she said.
“The nonprofit sector is such a vital part of the social fabric that binds us together but also an economic force,” Kesten said. “Look at how valuable nonprofits are economically, and there’s not a nonprofit that could do what it does without a volunteer. We need to understand just how vital volunteers are, not just an extra, but really vital to building the community we want to live in.”
Whether you’ve been making cards for seniors in nursing homes over the holidays (guided by WeePaint’s Natasha Kumar) or, like Loretta London, flying to third world countries on Healing the Children missions, the opportunities to find your volunteering niche and make an impact are innumerable and immediate.
“You don’t have to have money to give,” Richards said. Recalling Hurricane Sandy, she said, “The person who brought 17 tractor trailers and the person who brought a case of water both contributed.”
Time is what it comes down to. Siena College Research Institute found that New Yorkers list, as their primary excuse for not volunteering, that they are too busy; second, they haven’t been asked; third, they don’t know where to go to help.
Steve Wilgermein, a Tarrytown firefighter, is asking folks to come by the local firehouses or ambulance corps. “Volunteers seem to have an unselfish habit of doing good. Time is the greatest thing you can give, he said, adding that while it’s easy to complain about your community, it’s far better to “go out and help make a difference.”
Here’s a short list of just some of the local causes and organizations that need you now to:
SUPPORT THE PANTRY: The Community Food Pantry of Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow is always in need of volunteers. Check out www.communityfoodpantryshtt.org.
CONNECT WITH KIDS. Irvington’s Abbott House offers numerous opportunities to connect with children and developmentally disabled individuals. Volunteers are welcome in any capacity from lending general office support to leading a workshop. Call 914-365-6715.
To find more local opportunities to give please check out MLK Day in particular (events focused largely on the weekend prior to the national holiday, Jan. 17 and 18) and the Volunteer New York! resources in general at www.volunteernewyork.org.
Special Olympics Hudson Valley is proud to announce that five athletes, five partners, and three coaches from New York have been named to Special Olympics Team USA. The 491-member delegation will represent the United States at the 2015 Special Olympics World Summer Games, July 25 — August 2, 2015, in Los Angeles.