I’ve been doing this volunteer thing, and I guess it grew out of my community garden volunteering. Since I’m retired now, I try and think of better things to do than binge watching the entire Sopranos saga (twice) or looking up arcane stuff on the Internet.
When it’s warm and it’s garden season I spend a lot of time working at our community garden, Hope the Friendly Garden on the Hill. It’s actually meant to be Hope Garden but someone bought that domain name out from under us. More about that in the future.
So when the weather turns cold, what can I do?
That’s where New York Cares comes in. I’ve known about them for a while, every winter that I bought a new coat the old coat would go to a New York Cares coat collection station. And when I searched the Internet for volunteer opportunities a couple of years ago New York Cares came up.
This past August, in preparation for the end of garden season I signed up at New York Cares and attended an orientation. You have to do that in order to participate in any kind of volunteer event they host.
To backtrack a bit last year I took and completed a Master Composter course with the Lower East Side Ecology center. Part of becoming a master composter involved volunteering at events, and I did a bunch of “tableing,” meaning I sat at a table draped with a LESEC banner and showed off our worm bin.
I also did food events where my only job was to separate compostables from regular trash, a messy business indeed.
But it was rewarding and satisfying, doing something for the planet and my own sanity in the face of a world gone amok. That work prepared me for what I do now for others.
The first event for New York Cares was in the late summer, I spent 4 hours at the Intrepid Museum directing other volunteers to their stations. They packed a million meals in one day.
Then I signed up to tutor high school kids for their SAT tests. I do that most Saturdays until March.
My wife Danusia told me how for Christmas she used to buy gifts for strangers anonymously every season, and when I got an email from NY Cares about something called “Winter Wishes” I signed up.
Winter Wishes entails receiving letters from underprivileged children in the city and fulfilling their Christmas wish. I asked for 6 letters.
When the time came to go pick them up I mentioned it to Danusia, who expressed interest in helping out.
“How many letters did you sign up for?” She asked. “Six,” I replied.
“Are you crazy? Do you know what those kids ask for? You can’t spend five or six dollars on a gift. It’s more like forty or fifty.”
I was dismayed by the thought of having to shell out $240 to $300 for gifts while on a fixed income. I went to the New York Cares office and tried to get them to take some of the letters back. I figured I could do two, three max. I was told I had to speak to the woman who ran that program. When she came out she explained that the envelope was sealed, and that it was too late for adjustments. It was still three weeks before Christmas.
“You know, for some of these children this will be the only gift they receive this holiday season.” She told me. Talk about rubbing the guilt in! I left with my six letters hoping the kids didn’t want too much.
Of course I was alarmed when I started going through the letters, which were cute and funny and heartbreaking all at once.
One was easy, a six-year-old boy wanted a Bumblebee Transformer toy, and I could do that. The only girl I got wanted an LOL Doll or a Barbie. I wondered what an LOL Doll was. Two boys wanted either a skateboard or a scooter. One wanted a radio-controlled car, and the last boy wanted an iPad or a laptop, and failing that, an Apple Smart watch. Dream big, kid.
The instructions from NY Cares said not to spend more than $40 on a gift, and to wrap them. Then I either had to ship or deliver the gifts to some location in Bushwick.
I looked online for the best prices for some of these things, turned out that Walmart is cheapest, but there’s no Walmart near us. Danusia and I took the bus across the river to the big Mall in the Bronx, where there is a Target and a Marshalls. I got a radio-controlled car at Marshalls for under $30.
The skateboards were over $40, but Danusia offered to pay for one of them, and she got the Barbie for the girl. The LOL Doll thing was way to confusing. They were out of Bumblebees so I got another Transformer instead. There were no reasonably priced smart watches.
I went to Burlington coat factory the next day, where I found the scooter for half of what one of the skateboards cost. That kid’s first choice was the scooter anyway so I bought it and returned one of the skateboards to Target. I found a Kid’s smart watch on sale there for less than $40 and I we were done.
I’d also picked up some cheap wrapping paper and started wrapping when I got home. Danusia had wanted to include a bunch of candy and cookies she’d gotten as gifts from Tiffany’s after buying stuff for her boss there. I sort of tucked these things into the boxes and packages.
Of course when Danusia came home she was unhappy with my wrapping and re-did all of the gifts, individually wrapping the extra goodies. On the day of the deadline, December 6th we stuffed everything into our Whole Foods trolley and some IKEA shopping bags and headed out to Bushwick.
One of the gratifying things about giving a gift is watching the person’s face when they open it. This was not going to happen, and this is what makes the volunteering such an important tool in building self-esteem. I have to know that I did this out of love, and not to receive a reward.
I do it because I spent so much of my life taking, not just things but taking emotions and life out of people, friends family and strangers; and it’s time to do some giving.
The last thing we did for Christmas was to make our annual lino-block cut cards and send them out.
Well, actually it was me that did the block cut and printed it out, but Danusia wrote out most of the cards and finished them off with a little glitter to hide the imperfections. If we know you and you didn’t get one, sorry we missed you. Maybe next year.