By Rachel Weinstein | Photos Courtesy of Voa-Gny
The questions New Yorkers inevitably ask each other when meeting for the first time are, “Where do you live?” followed quickly by “Have you always lived in New York?” My short answer is “Yes, this is home,” though I always hesitate a split second. I was born in Virginia, attended elementary school on Long Island, moved to Greece for two years with my family, and then back to Long Island. My parents moved to France as I headed to college in upstate New York and Virginia. That’s the long answer.
Because my family moved quite a bit, New York City, and specifically the Upper West Side, where my maternal grandparents lived, was home base. New York City is where we gathered to celebrate Thanksgiving and see the Macy’s Parade and the balloons inflated the night before. It’s where I saw The Nutcracker and Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts for the first time.
Community service and engagement were a large part of my childhood. My family was involved in helping to desegregate housing on Long Island. My mother worked as a volunteer teacher’s aide for preschoolers with Down syndrome. When they were short staffed, I came and played with the children. We moved to Greece just in time to experience the military coup of 1967. There, my parents ran the only “free” printing press and helped dissidents leave the country safely. We returned to Long Island two years later, but my parents never lost their zeal for activism. Just one year before he died, my father spent a night at Zuccotti Park with the Occupy Wall Street movement.
This tradition of acting on one’s beliefs and serving others was deeply ingrained in me at a young age. When it came time to choose a career path, a brief but pivotal experience pushed me in the direction of social work. As my grandmother’s health declined, I met a patient, compassionate, and truly angelic social worker who helped us cope with the reality of death. My decision to continue studies in social work and go on to work in hospital settings was undoubtedly influenced by that experience.
After 15 years in social work, I went back to school and earned another degree and a post-graduate certificate. I worked on Wall Street for another 15 years before having my daughter at 40. It wasn’t long before we were spending time at the Hippo Playground in Riverside Park and in the thickly carpeted Gem Room at the Museum of Natural History.
When she started school, friends of mine began serendipitously passing along freelance projects. My career shifted again, and for five years I planned meetings for a diverse range of clients ranging from Bristol-Myers Squibb and Meredith Corp to The Commonwealth Fund, Breast Cancer on Long Island and Volunteers of America—Greater New York (VOA-GNY). When I decided it was time to return to work full time, I had two job offers—one with the possibility of exotic travel, research and writing, and the other offering me the chance to impact the lives of people right here in my community. I chose VOA-GNY, not realizing it was an organization my parents had been faithfully donating to for years. They were very proud to tell their friends that I would be working for VOA.
When I started, I toured VOA-GNY’s many programs to familiarize myself with the enormous range of services offered. I visited a domestic violence shelter, a school for preschoolers with developmental delays, a residence for people living with HIV/AIDS, apartments for older adults with disabilities who had survived abuse at Willowbrook State School. I was so impressed by the commitment of the staff that I knew I had made the right decision. Though Volunteers of America, Inc. is one of the oldest and largest social services organizations in the nation—founded in New York City in 1896—it does not dictate to its local affiliates, like ours, but rather encourages us to address the needs of the local community. VOA founders Maud and Ballington Booth pledged to “go wherever we are needed, and do whatever comes to hand.” I loved that.
The day I visited our family shelter on the Upper West Side, I was disturbed to find children getting on a bus to go to school completely empty-handed. As a mom who had just gone back-to-school shopping for my own child, I was particularly struck by the inequity of the situation.
SO LITTLE MEANS SO MUCH
In the long tradition of the Booths, we went and we did. From the very beginning, Operation Backpack had complete support from the organization. Now, 15 years later, thanks to VOA and the incredible generosity and community-mindedness of New Yorkers, we are outfitting every child living in city shelters—even non-VOA shelters—with much-needed school supplies. Operation Backpack provides more than just calculators, pens and notebooks. It helps these kids feel more like their peers, and less like children in need. It gives them the confidence they need to be academically prepared and a step closer to ending their family’s cycle of poverty and homelessness.
This year, 18,000 fully-stocked backpacks were distributed to children living in or entering shelters and, since its inception, we estimate nearly 160,000 children have benefited from the program. That doesn’t happen without a lot of help! Operation Backpack is 100 percent dependent on contributions from the public and from its 250+ corporate and community partners, whether it’s through financial support or donated supplies. Over the years, we’ve been fortunate to gain the support of several celebrities including Paige Davis, Kevin Bacon among others who take time out of their busy schedules to promote a cause they believe in.
It’s clear I made the right choice to join VOA-GNY. My role has helped satisfy my commitment to community service and the city I love. I’ve seen VOA-GNY’s offerings grow exponentially from 35 social service programs to 90 today. And I’m proud of how diverse our work has become as needs across the city change. In response to the affordable housing crisis, we are building more permanent supportive housing. As one of the largest providers of services to veterans struggling to reintegrate, we are establishing a program that certifies veterans to become peer counselors. And soon, we will begin exploring the possibility of opening a program for pregnant women who are substance abusers, with the goal of breaking the cycle of addiction in families and babies born addicted.
CARING FOR YOUNG & OLD
As the seasons change, we encourage everyone to support VOA-GNY’s holiday drives that provide food vouchers for families in need and gifts to many of the same children who received backpacks. Our gift drive for the elderly, Burt and Barbara’s Gifts of the Heart—which is named for two extraordinary members of the VOA-GNY community—is another thoughtful way to make sure that those who are aging alone in our care are not forgotten during the holidays.
I believe VOA-GNY is in a unique position to be a leader in volunteer opportunities for the whole family. By engaging youth, and helping them experience the joy of serving others, we can inspire the next generation to be one that gives back.