After a few months on the road I was feeling restless to be productive. Searching for something that required little training and no long-term commitment I came across New York Cares. Founded by a group of friends who wanted to take action in the late 80s, it provides one-off volunteering opportunities that fit in with the busy schedule of the average New Yorker. I attended a short orientation, sceptical about whether I could really make an impact in such a short time but determined to try and make myself useful for a week.
At a job club in Harlem I was matched with Jason*, who within minutes told me he had a bullet lodged in his head from a shoot out in New Jersey, and as well as getting regular headaches this meant he could tell when it was going to rain. Jason had recently moved to the Bronx, needed work and was struggling with poor literacy and an extensive criminal record. We got him confident using google maps and identified the parts of New York he could get to within an hour commute. We then completed a couple of applications for warehouse jobs. After 45 minutes he told me that his 20 year old daughter had just come out as gay. While he assured me he was okay with it and just wanted her to be happy, he was scared about the reaction of his wife and the rest of his Nigerian community. We talked a lot. Was it his fault? Was she born like that or was it a choice? How could he support her? I've no idea if I helped his job search, but the opportunity to talk to someone outside his community about his daughter seemed a real relief.
In the public library in Manhattan I attended Computer Club, where anyone can turn up to get computer help from volunteers. I worked with a Japanese woman who has grandchildren in Germany and Japan. She had moved to New York for her husband's job but he had sadly died shortly after they arrived. Her son had bought her a Samsung phone that she had no idea how to use. We abandoned the computer lesson to show her the basics on her phone, which she grasped quickly. By the end of the hour she'd downloaded WhatsApp and set up a group of all her grandchildren, at which point their selfies started to flood in. She started to cry. It was obvious what a big difference this simple exchange of knowledge would make to her. We sent a selfie back.
At the Arab American Centre in Brooklyn I supported the American History class for refugees hoping to take the US Citizenship Test. We studied the War of Independence and the Boston Tea Party. I then took a group of three to discuss what we'd learnt and what we thought of it. We laughed about people complaining about taxes, the outbreak of wars and the circularity of it all. One man had been in the US for 14 years and still wasn't able to work. This was the 24th June and so I was in Brexit shock. Spending a few hours with these intelligent and resilient individuals was of far more benefit to me than I was to them. They consoled me that life goes on and everything would be okay and I was grateful for their friendship and perspective. I left feeling a little bit better.
The rest of the week I spent deadheading rose bushes in Seward Park in Chinatown (full of Chinese dance groups, men playing board games and elderly women doing tai chi); ironing grated wax crayons into works of art with the children of women living in a hostel in the Bronx; and serving beef stew at a soup kitchen in Manhattan, where I was accused by the regular volunteers of being 'too chippa' and setting expectations for more than just the usual brash New York style.
I've no doubt I got more out of this week than the people I served, enriched by the insight and friendship they offered me. New York Cares, as a space for New Yorkers to come together and build relationships beyond their own community, is pretty special. I'm not sure whether I made the difference that the projects were aiming at. But the exchange of values, experiences and simple compassion with and from those I worked with will certainly stay with me. And hopefully with them too.
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