Volunteering in NYC
December 21, 2013 7:48 PM   Subscribe

I'd like to possibly do some volunteering. Specific requirements inside.

Hello. I'd like to possibly do some volunteering if there's a good fit for me out there.
Here are my requirements:

1. I like things that are genuinely needed and useful. Right now my primary community service is donating blood regularly. I like it because it fulfills a concrete need, and it really matters. (There's no substitute for human blood and without donors people would die.) When I donate, there are often other volunteers there working the canteen. It's nice when they're there, but if they're not, it's no big deal - I just get my own cookies and juice. "Nice but not necessary" is not the type of volunteering I am looking for.

2. In NYC. I might consider a special short trip on the East Coast, but certainly none of those international trips where you go away for three weeks and shell out a couple grand to volunteer.

3. No on-going administrative, office-type work. I feel like this takes away paid work from people who need it.

4. I would like to meet other interesting people my age (early 30s).

5. I prefer causes that are as inclusive as they can be. (Inclusion is limited by the type of population served, of course.) For example, I'd rather work a soup kitchen open to all than a food bank that has eligibility requirements and thus turns some people away.

6. My social skills are medium. I can talk to strangers, but I don't think I have the finesse to handle very difficult populations.

Any ideas? Thanks.
posted by unannihilated to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (11 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
New York Cares would be my first choice.
posted by NYC-BB at 7:55 PM on December 21, 2013

Are you looking for something regular/ongoing? What days and times are you free?
posted by the twistinside at 7:56 PM on December 21, 2013

Sorry, I guess I should have been more specific - I'm looking for suggestions of specific organizations or types of activites that are worthwhile. The problem with big databases like New York Cares is that I have no way to evaluate the opportunities.

Something regular/ongoing would be good if no more than a few hours a week/month and there would be no dire consequences if I had to miss. Once in a while things would be good too.

I work a standard 9-5, M-F job.
posted by unannihilated at 8:01 PM on December 21, 2013

If you haven't already, I recommend checking Idealist.org. I have similar requirements for volunteering, and have found several great opportunities on Idealist. I'm in DC so don't have NYC-specific recs.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 8:02 PM on December 21, 2013

Idealist is a great resource for this.

I volunteered at the Housing Works bookshop for a while, and it was pretty great. I don't know that the specific gig of staffing a bookshop is "necessary", but the shops accept donations which are sold to make money for the Housing Works organization, which works to help HIV-positive homeless people. So your shift in the store helps homeless people get homes, pays the medical bills of indigent people who are HIV-positive, and also funds various other initiatives on the issues of both homelessness and HIV.

It's a pretty easy way to translate basic regular person skills into help for people who need it. There may also be other volunteer opportunities with Housing Works that are more hands-on with their mission. Working in their shops is a great way to meet interesting people, and realistically speaking it doesn't take paid jobs away from others.
posted by Sara C. at 8:18 PM on December 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Have you considered approaching businesses/organizations directly and asking if and what kinds of volunteer-run events and opportunities they might have? Admittedly this takes a bit more time and effort, and you're likely to encounter a bunch of closed doors, but I've found that it's yielded some chances that I'd probably never have stumbled upon.

My mother always said: "If you knock on the DOOR, it will OPEN." I mean, she said this in a Korean accent, and the diction always seemed off to me, and I always thought she meant it a way that pressured me to excel-- she was pretty pushy like that. And of course it's not always true. But in your case it might mean visiting an organization's events to see what people are doing, the population being served, and the work that's being done. From there you could call or speak to someone in person to ask if there's anything you might be able to offer. This way a) you know what you're getting into to see if it fills your criteria, and b) you get to engage in some interaction that helps you and them suss each other out for suitability/compatibility.

For me, well, I took a trip to Paris a while ago as a treat to myself, but tried to make it a point to start it off by finding some sort of volunteering gig. Maybe to offset some guilt in taking what I considered to be a pretty sweet, lavish vacation, but also to maybe meet some folks and practice some French (I went by myself). After a few inquiries, I found myself with a place and time to be on my first day, and ended up at the American Cathedral. On arrival, only one other person was there, and she didn't expect me. But yes, it was a day that people come to prep breakfast for the homeless, and yes, she'll find something for me to do.

More volunteers trickled in: a professional chef and his (sigh) very attractive daughter, an older, retired couple who used to practice medicine in the US and now spends half the year in Paris in retirement, a local produce man, and a much older gentleman, whose role I didn't understand at first but quickly learned had to do with plating, and beauty. Everyone had their role, and I pretty much did whatever was asked, and they were generous enough to think of me and found things for me to do.

So I peeled a billion potatoes, cleaned a bunch of pots and pans, rummaged through the storage room for salad spinner parts (this I believe was an inside joke-- they knew that there were only two completely functional salad spinners, but it was cool to see all the old stuff they had in storage), carried sacks of vegetables and groceries up and down old, rain-slicked stairs, got hit on in French by the aforementioned daughter, which I didn't quite understand until her father, in English, dared her to repeat herself in English, and finally took a mild verbal lecturing on the importance of plating and serving a large group of people from an old man who finally gave me a good nod of approval at the end.

They could've easily done this all without me, and knew each other as a regular crew. If anything, I may have slowed them down. But I think that they knew that they knew that they were also volunteering to help ME, and offered their time, stories, and kinship to me, and tough they knew I was just visiting, they extended an immediate friendship to me, and left a lasting impression on me.

I'm not religious, and YMMV when it comes to volunteering for religious organizations or churches. In this particular case, nothing religious was forced on me, and I had fun, met some swell people, felt really good about things, got to take a look around a beautiful church, and was reminded of how good people-- all people, including the homeless, can be and are.

Since then, I've found that calling or asking about volunteer opportunities for events posted on flyers, or signs, spread by word of mouth, or even cold calling organizations, have yielded some rewarding experiences. Yeah, I still do some standard sign-up stuff, and some of these random inquiries result in one-off events, but I've found that a lot of the time there are places that might not be organized enough, or large enough, or simply starting off, that appreciate an extra hand.

It certainly takes more effort, and there's more rejection, but knocking on doors and finding them open or being invited in really did help me excel in ways I didn't think about when I was younger; it's helped me understand that pursuit of excellence doesn't just apply to being better at playing an instrument, or getting accepted into a competitive university; the pursuit of being a better human and understanding oneself also requires knocking on doors.

So maybe instead of homing on something specific, think more of a general attitude and approach to finding opportunities that might not be listed in a database, or website. I believe there are plenty of places that might not even realize they could use volunteers until someone presents themselves with their time and energy. A lot of smaller organizations that serve an underserved population are used to not having much time, money, or people-power to work with, and they, too, are sometimes rejected by people as places to volunteer at.
posted by herrdoktor at 9:34 PM on December 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

Your question makes your interests sound human-specific but have you considered your local humane society? One of my best volunteer gigs was walking dogs at our local society. I went in Sunday mornings and walked/played with dogs before they opened for adoptions. The goal was to get the pups exercised and calmed down a bit before people came in to meet them so they'd be on their best possible behavior. And, at least on our humane society's website, I could look the next day to see if any of the dogs I'd walked had been adopted. It was cool to see that I might have helped re-home some of those pups. And that helped mitigate the "OMG I want to take them all home!" feeling.

Their contact page is here.
posted by Beti at 12:37 AM on December 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

One situation that worked very well for me was volunteering at the NYCACC. This is essentially the pound, and it is a kill shelter, but if you are an animal person and you want to be truly needed, I can't think of any shelter animals that need human interaction more.
One of the reasons it worked so well for me is that after an initial orientation, they were very flexible with scheduling, so much so that there really wasn't any scheduling, you just went in whenever you had time. They would make suggestions as to the best time to be there as there was a dearth of people volunteering certain shifts, but they were pretty desperate for volunteers whenever they would show up.

You can also interact as much or as little with people as you like. I would on occasion talk to prospective adoptees, but mostly I just exercised the dogs and gave the other animals attention and tried to relax them.

It is not for the soft hearted, as an animal you may have bonded with one day might not be there the next, and you know that chances are it did not get adopted, but I did feel as if I gave at least a little comfort. There is also a huge benefit in getting to know an animal slightly (they aren't there long) but well enough to understand it's general character traits and be able to have a conversation with potential adoptive parents about the dogs (I'm a dog person so that was my main focus). I facilitated several adoptions like this while I volunteered.

There are people of all age ranges volunteering, and generally speaking an overall positive and very worthwhile experience.
posted by newpotato at 6:01 AM on December 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

Bowery Mission is a good one
posted by slkinsey at 6:24 AM on December 22, 2013

I have volunteered with Everybody Wins and am thinking of signing up again now.
It is a program where you read with a public school child at lunch to help him or her with literacy skills. It is important to really commit to programs that involve seeing a child regularly, so I would only recommend it if you can be sure to follow through. I have found it very rewarding to have a relationship with the mentee and the program pairs you with a school close to your workplace so you can pop over during lunch.
posted by rmless at 8:37 AM on December 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

New York City Inner City Outings

If you like the outdoor, this is a great organization. It is a community-based volunteer organization within Sierra Club with the believe that the outdoor needs to be accessible to everyone, even those without resources and know-how can benefit greatly with a few hours spend outdoors. You will be helping your local community.

If you are an environmentalist it's a great way to spread your passion to the younger generation. The thing is to awaken the younger generation of the great environmental challenges they will face in the future is to make them appreciate and participant in nature. It's the only way for them to make a connection. Connection requires participation.

If you are not outdoorsy or adventurous but have always wanted to learn, it is a hands-on organization that everyone is learning by doing. And you will be learning along the way with the kids. At the same time, it provides you an opportunity to explore the natural area you reside.

You can pick and choose the age group you spend your time with or/and pick and choose what type of outings you volunteer on.
posted by gloturtle at 10:54 AM on December 23, 2013

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