Become a volunteer, you’ll be glad you did


There are volunteer opportunities at Animal Haven. Photo courtesy of Animal Haven
By Meredith Kurz

“We always need children’s underwear,” said my hospital guide. “We just can’t have enough.” The packages with colorful images of Disney characters or other pop stars of the under-four group were tucked in a small cabinet. I was touring Children of Bellevue, a nonprofit now in its 70th year. Many children admitted at Bellevue Hospital are victims of abuse, admitted without any underwear, or worse, underwear that must be thrown away. This truth has stuck in my throat for three years.

Our city can be both terribly violent and selflessly philanthropic. In the spirit of Martin Luther King Day, a national day of service celebrated every January, here are snapshots highlighting four of the many nonprofit organizations that serve Manhattan.

Children of Bellevue is the hospital’s extra support arm for children. Its programs help ease pain, loneliness and other difficult hospital experiences that kids go through. They help abused or neglected youngsters to cope, recover and heal; advance language development among children at risk of delay; and nurture children and adolescents hospitalized for psychiatric reasons. The group’s Child Life and Development staff may advise concerned parents on how to help a child struggling in school, and there are classrooms located in Bellevue for long-term children patients.

Child Development specialists help children express feelings about their illness and prepare them for procedures. They also train medical students in child development and therapeutic play, offer parent support and counseling, and perform child developmental assessments. In their outpatient clinic, they provide adolescent parenting programs, early learning groups, and a variety of clinics addressing diabetes, asthma, and more.

There are several volunteer opportunities at Children of Bellevue, one being ‘Reach Out and Read’ a Literacy program, where volunteers read to children in the waiting room. Once parents see these volunteers reading to their children, there is a modeling effect, which takes the volunteer experience from the hospital into the home.

Goddard Riverside Community Center, a fixture on the Upper West Side since 1959, has 25 outreach services, spanning early childhood to older adulthood. It offers mental health, education, housing, homelessness, employment, and childcare services.

There are many entry points for volunteers. You can tutor at their learning center, which provides one-to-one tutoring for low-income students in grades 2-12; the annual Book Fair always needs helpers; corporate group volunteers can help for a few hours or an entire day; and your family can participate by delivering or serving food. There are also the annual holiday meal and ongoing meal delivery programs, not to mention any talents you can share with older adults.

Animal Haven, located at 200 Centre Street, is in its 50th year. Animal Haven wants ‘forever homes’ for their adopted pets, so they offer adult training lessons, and therapy dog prep courses. These are great tools to ensure success for adoptions. There are a wide variety of volunteer opportunities including dog walking, feeding, and handling; cat socializing, feeding and handling; cleaning animal areas, bathing pets, greeting guests, assisting potential adopters, and speaking to the public about Animal Haven’s mission. If you’ve never volunteered for a shelter before, here’s what I’ve learned — employees and volunteers are in an “all hands on deck” situation, with little time to answer phones or emails. Visiting the shelter in person is often the best way to begin your relationship.

When my husband was approaching 60, he decided to run his first marathon. I sat in the bleachers six-and-a-half hours later, waiting for him to come around the bend. It was rainy and cold, but I didn’t care, because this was a milestone. Finishing just before my spouse were several people in wheelchairs, or in one case, crutches. Run-walking alongside these marathoners were volunteers assisting them, cheering them on, wearing shirts that read Achilles International. There wasn’t a dry eye in the rain folks.

“I came to volunteer here, and never left,” said Selvie Mulaj, now an employee at Achilles International. She’s done the marathon twice, in her wheelchair. “I did the marathon in honor of my Albanian Dad. I got on that course and it was amazing: the love was crazy. I didn’t have time to focus much on the pain, you know, because I was getting beloved.”

Running alongside and helping someone conquer the marathon as a Marathon Guide is an opportunity of a lifetime, but if you’re not a marathoner, there are other ways to help out. You can teach disabled runners to become comfortable with special equipment, or participate in workouts, or help out with race-day logistics.

Volunteer and charity opportunities are as rich and varied as our city. I imagine I’ll be getting quite a few, “but you forgot to mention ...”, so I’m hoping people will tell me about the nonprofit volunteer groups that they value, either by mail or by commenting online.