New York depends on an “army” of volunteers that multiplies at the rate of increasingly complex crises.

Dominican Zoila Estrella, 70 years old, For two decades, she has followed a daily routine that has given her life much more meaning: helping an organization West Side Campaign Against Hunger (WSCAH) in operations to distribute fresh and nutritious food to New York’s most vulnerable communities.

It’s just about one of hundreds of organizations working to address food insecurity in the Big Apple. And Zoila is just one of the great legion of volunteers whoThey go out every day to lend their shoulder on different “battlefields.”to help those who find themselves in difficult situations in life.

I’m poor. But there are people even poorer than me. And if I have the desire and time to help, it gives me a satisfaction that I cannot describe. “It makes me happy to see people happy.”says the islander, who has lived in Upper Manhattan for more than 40 years.

It would be very difficult to try to install How many community-based nonprofits serving the world’s most vulnerable are intertwined throughout New York City?, one of the world’s megacities with the largest concentration of billionaires. On the contrary, it is here that one of the highest poverty rate in the country.

It is the thousands of volunteers of all kinds, available in the most difficult moments and constantly confronting structural problems, that are the formidable force to confront the endless chain of social, environmental, economic and health dramas that are associated with more than just hunger. , but with whips such as gender-based violence, animal cruelty, addiction, discrimination, forced migration, hate crimes, the integration of prisoners after their release, and the risks or loneliness of older people...In any case, for a long time and so on, It’s hard to sum it up.

“I’m sure that no matter how hard this city is, This is one of the most supportive in the world. People donate to help people they don’t even know. There is a great need among newly arrived immigrants now. Many don’t even have a kitchen where they can prepare food. They live in shelters. And this city has moved forward with them,” Zoila says while driving. long lines of people getting food to supplement their diet.

Study financial corporation people Wallet Hubstudied the 100 largest cities in the country, analyzing the level of child poverty and number of homeless people compared to number of volunteer hours per capita, favor of neighbors and share of donations to charity. On this list, the Big Apple was included in a group of five cities. more generous with those less fortunate.

Puerto Rican Janet Colon actively volunteers in New York prisons. (Photo: F. Martinez)

Most Marginalized

The face of volunteering in New York City is growing during times of crisis, as has become evident during the difficult years of the pandemic. There are several non-profit jobs “downstream” that, aside from emergencies, operate day-to-day. his vision is aimed at offering support to people who are by definition very disadvantaged, at risk and under the accusatory gaze of many.

For example, Puerto Rican Janet Colon, a Bronx resident, five years ago joined as a co-sponsor of plans to support the Campaign to Release the Elderly (RAPP), one of many coalitions that work with prisoners in New York City. Not only to ensure that their sentence is carried out with minimal respect for their human rights, but to achieve a more harmonious integration into society after liberation.

“For example, this Christmas I saw volunteers going into prisons just to give company to prisoners who have no family. This is just wonderful“, He said.

Janet has learned from personal experience that it is not the same when volunteer work involves… provide support to the elderly, children or homeless peoplebecause in the case of prisoners, not everyone approves of the fact that this is a population that is in prison for “making a mistake”, need opportunities or are valued as people of dignity.

“In my own family they tell me I’m crazy. But for now, I’m basing this on the fact that Jesus Christ interacted with the worst members of society, because all people deserve the opportunity to change. He helped criminals, lepers, prostitutes. And we have to save that as part of his message.”– shared the Puerto Rican.

A RAPP volunteer celebrating Gov. Kathy Hochul’s award, she said. pardoning 16 people on Christmas Evethe work of these defense organizations is key to ensuring that the people who those who have committed a crime are released and can return to their neighborhoods without posing a danger, as many people think.

“The most beautiful thing about this volunteering is that in addition to monitoring the nutrition and health of prisoners, efforts are made to ensure that this group, even in the worst conditions where they are recognized by justice as criminals, They value their lives and can change. I witnessed great transformations. “Prisons should not be a mechanism for making people worse off.”Janet thought about it.

The government is not enough

Especially as it becomes clear that this year the Big Apple is ending at alarming rates of food insecurity, mental health issues, affordable housing shortages, a growing immigration crisis and complex drug addiction problems, without volunteers from thousands of programs, a hand from municipal, state and federal government will never be enough.

Tons of food are distributed daily to pantries, social programs and faith-based initiatives throughout the five boroughs. And in these days marked by Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year, when somehow the spirit of solidarity towards those who have less money is activated, There is hardly another city in the world where so many support initiatives are available to prevent thousands of people from ending the day without eating.

In fact, according to a report published by Hunger Free America, the number of New Yorkers without enough food over a seven-day period averaged September and October 2023 are 9.3% higher than September and October 2021.

During this period, the number of people without enough food in the New York metropolitan area increased by From 1.2 to 1.3 million.

Hunger Free America attributes this rise in food insecurity to the end of expansion child tax credits and universal school meals.

Organizations like VIA, run by 100% volunteers, have emerged in the Big Apple to provide answers to information gaps in very specific immigrant communities. (Photo: Courtesy: VIA)

When volunteers are the backbone

But food shortages may be one of the easiest problems to measure in a complex and multi-ethnic society like New York, which is also one of the migration axes in the country. It is in this sense that initiatives have emerged to fill gaps in guidance, information and adaptation. Created 100% by volunteerism.

In 2016, when the migration crisis that had assumed gigantic proportions in New York since the spring of 2022 was not yet visible, a pair of young Venezuelan professionals, consisting of Nyurka Melendez and Hector Arguinzones, They created the organization “Aid to Venezuelans and Immigrants” (VIA).

At that time there was a large gap in information about Forced migrants and asylum seekers in the Big Apple. With this organization they have confirmed support groups, legal and emotional support clinics, where the fundamental pillar is voluntary human capital.

“Today, among lawyers, psychologists and other support groups, we have a group of volunteers numbering more than 30 people. Those who assist in the sessions are trained in aspects such as mental health to be able to address very painful human processes.Melendez explained.

In addition to the typical activities of the Christmas season, such as dinners with typical Venezuelan dishes and the distribution of coats to newly arrived families, on an ongoing basis VIA became a platform that allowed to raise awareness even among institutions about what a forced migrant and asylum seeker is.

“Seven years ago there was no understanding of the nature of asylum seeker status. And even more so about the terrible and increasingly serious humanitarian crisis that my country is suffering from. When we volunteered as translators to support days with organizations helping Africans and migrants from Eastern Europe, We realized that it was necessary to extend this assistance to our people. And along the way, volunteering has played a vital role.”– concludes the activist.

Do you want to become a volunteer?

Almost all of New York City’s dynamics in health, education, culture, sports, senior initiatives and community organizations require volunteers, whether professional or non-professional, multilingual or simply with a calling to serve, year-round. . to others. We share only a few paths according to certain areas of interest:

  • New York cares centralizes volunteer opportunities from a variety of community organizations in different areas, especially for at-risk people: Visit:
  • NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital one of the Big Apple’s leading hospital centers offers volunteer positions in a variety of areas. Visit:
  • Citymeals on Wheels is constantly looking for help in distributing food to seniors in need: visit:

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