Volunteering on the Upper West Side: How Dedicated Volunteers Got Started

The Goddard Riveside Book Fair, a long-running volunteer event.

This is a two-article series on the importance of volunteering in the neighborhood. See the other article here.

By Sondra Leftoff

The Upper West Side is known as a locus of volunteerism and social activism. That reputation didn’t come from nowhere. Residents have stepped up for decades to help their neighbors. But starting a volunteer gig can feel daunting, so we asked some of the core volunteers for Upper West Side nonprofits how they got their start, and why.

On 9/11, Avrum Geller watched as the World Trade Center burned and collapsed before his eyes and decided that day to volunteer to help in the recovery process. Volunteering was one way many New Yorkers responded to the horrors of that day. For Geller it marked the beginning of an ongoing commitment to volunteering as he moved on to volunteer at DOROT, a social service agency on the UWS that is dedicated to addressing the needs of elders in the neighborhood. His work now includes providing a helping hand to elderly residents of the UWS, and using genealogy to bridge missing links in people’s lives. For Geller, the experience enriched him in ways he hadn’t expected, including establishing connections with an older generation like those he had with his own grandparents.

DOROT was founded in the 1970s when a group of Columbia University social work graduates realized that the social isolation of elders was an issue in their community that they could do something about. From that beginning, DOROT has evolved into an agency that addresses problems of social isolation of an aging population on the UWS through programs that promote aging in place while providing social connections that may be lost in the process, or as Laura Klein, its Director of Volunteer Services pointed out functions to “combat social isolation for older adults.”

Klein described the range of programs available at DOROT that involve volunteers, including Knitting Circle for volunteers who want to knit blankets and scarves for homeless and low-income older adults; a discussion group on aging; brief home-based programs like holiday food delivery programs (a good introduction to volunteering) or a new one-on-one technology coaching program that lasts for 3 or 4 sessions. There’s also the longer-term Friendly Visiting Program, an at-home program with a goal of developing a deeper relationship between the elder and volunteer, which Klein described as an opportunity to “make friends with an older person, learn their stories.” It is at minimum a yearlong commitment, with home meetings either twice a month (one home visit and one phone visit) or weekly. Social workers are intricately involved in this program as they make the matches “by seeking commonalities in interests, personalities and background.”  For information about volunteering, please visit www.dorotusa.org or contact Laura Klein at volunteers@dorotusa.org  For the technology coaching program contact Norman Reiss at nreiss@dorotusa.org.

DOROT relies on volunteers for many of its programs. Geller became a volunteer there about a year after 9/11. He initially volunteered with the Red Cross in the days after the attack and continued working with them until his project was phased out. He decided then to find another volunteer opportunity as he explained that “9/11 changed me and I wanted to help.”

Geller described his growing involvement with DOROT since 2001. His dedication to the organization was inspired by Geller’s ties to his deceased grandparents, his memory of the family connections they created and his understanding of DOROT’s mission as “providing assistance to older people living independently.”

Geller took a route Klein described volunteers may take as they “test the waters”/find their place in the organization. He started volunteering in the office making outreach calls to DOROT clients, then began home visits through the holiday package delivery program and finally got involved in the Friendly Visiting Program where he learned that “volunteering is a 2-way activity and we help each other.” His love of genealogy became a means to connect with clients in reconstructing their pasts and through that to reconnect with family members where ties were weak or broken. A client who was a Holocaust survivor enabled him to understand parts of that history that were otherwise incomprehensible. He finds meaning both in these long term relationships and in the briefer time spent with an elder in distributing holiday meals.

Beth Puffer took a similar route as a volunteer at Goddard Riverside, a social service agency with a long history and large presence on the UWS. Puffer had run a bookstore and began as a volunteer at the Goddard Book Fair, an annual pre-Thanksgiving event. Following the devastation of Hurricane Sandy in New York, Puffer decided to take a new route in volunteering. After Sandy, Goddard sent out a request for volunteers for their Meals on Wheels program and Puffer decided to make the move. While books were her lifelong passion, working in the kitchen, connecting regularly with other volunteers and staff and meeting and helping home bound adults has become of great significance in her life (She does continue her book passion, however, as a volunteer at the bi-monthly St. Agnes book sale). Like Geller, the nature of Puffer’s volunteerism at Goddard evolved and led her in new directions to help the community. Now she’s also volunteering monthly at a women’s shelter at St. Paul and St. Andrew Church at 263 West 86th Street.

Crystal Walker, the Volunteer Coordinator at Goddard, describes the importance of annual events like the book fair or holiday meals in introducing Goddard to the community. It is part of an extensive volunteer program that Walker points out “helps the community make human connections with the families we serve.” In contrast to DOROT, their programs are directed at all age groups in the community. Like DOROT, their programs range from annual events like the book fair and holiday meals to long term one-on-one mentoring relationships as in the Options Program, which connects students to mentors and can exist over years as students move from high school to college. There’s also the Star Program, which is a one-on-one tutoring program that continues through the school year. Volunteers for the Star Program can be young adults.

Goddard also has programs directed at corporate engagement and community building. At Goddard Riverside at Lincoln Square, a community center, there are opportunities for young people to meet with professionals at Club Night and through science, math and technology exercises that engage youth and professionals on shared projects. In its outreach to the community and in its community building efforts Goddard also has a Home Delivered Meals program in which individual and corporate volunteers prepare and deliver meals to community members, a version of the work that Puffer is involved in.

Goddard has many other activities including fitness classes, art classes, dance classes for children, technology training for seniors and Senior Escorts for which they need volunteers. You can find the Goddard volunteer program at www.goddard.org/grcc/volunteer.

The JCC also has an extensive volunteer program ranging from Engage, a program to facilitate engagement for seniors, to Literacy and Math, a program that pairs volunteers including teens over 14 with K-12th grade students to work on math and literacy skills. The JCC also has technology training for seniors on smartphones, tablets, photo editing, streaming and Instagram which are 1 – 3 sessions long, to point to just a few of their volunteer programs. For more information about Engage, contact Rabbi Brian Fink at bfink@jccmanhattan.org. For information about Literacy and Math contact Tiaisha Tirado at ttirado@jccmmanhattan.org.   For Senior Tech volunteering contact Arienne Pelletier at apelletier@jccmanhattan.org.

And of course there are the smaller volunteer programs, like the ones Beth Puffer volunteers at. The Columbus Amsterdam BID, which focuses on the northern part of the neighborhood including the Manhattan Valley area, also needs volunteers for its tree stewardship program and the Holiday Wish List, said District Manager Peter Arndtsen. Websites like nycservice.org also lists volunteer opportunities by zipcode.

With all these options how does one decide how or where to start? And why? Both Geller and Puffer reflected on the personal value and motives of volunteering. “It’s complicated” might be a cliché, but it does suggest how personal and idiosyncratic these decisions and motives are. Geller started in response to a tragedy of enormous proportions but his lasting commitment to working with elders enabled him to connect him to a grandparent generation he had appreciated and had come to miss. None of that was on his mind when he showed up at the Red Cross office after 9/11 or at DOROT months later. Puffer, who finds “personal satisfaction in giving back,” has also evolved in the depth and extent of her volunteer commitments. Starting with a book fair, then Meals on Wheels, food preparation and delivery and then work in a women’s shelter suggests that it helps to just start something and see where it leads. Puffer recently reflected on the price of the inequalities of our society and the need to “step up” to address it. Likely neither Geller nor Puffer would have predicted at the outset either the nature of their trajectories or the meaning their choices came to have for them. It did however depend on their taking some first steps in getting there.

In the comments, help us add to the list we have created so far.

[See our companion article on how one local man relied on volunteers at a difficult time in his life.]

NEWS | 2 comments | permalink
    1. Laura Pensa says:

      I really think you are doing a great job for those in need, I would like to put some helping hands in what you have started.

    2. BJK says:

      I hope you do a piece in this series on New York Cares, the umbrella organization that feeds volunteers to places needing them across the city including the UWS—I’ve volunteered at Goddard through New York Cares without which I’d not have known of Goddard’s needs.

      According to its website, New York Cares provides 52,000 volunteers each year to 1,600 volunteer-led projects at 1,350 nonprofit organizations / schools and serving 400,000 New Yorkers in need.