The Citymeals Blog

Food for Though

A Strong Bond with Volunteers

Tell me about your fifteen years leading the volunteer program at Citymeals.
I love what I do. My grandmother was instrumental in my upbringing and raised me to care for people in need. So my work is personally meaningful. As Senior Director of Volunteer Programs & Corporate Engagement, I work with nearly 20,000 dedicated volunteers each year. They are integral to rely on volunteers to support our mission, delivering meals to the homebound elderly. 

How did our volunteers respond when the Covid-19 crisis emerged last spring? 
Our volunteers began packing emergency meals in early March, before the city shut down. Citymeals is the emergency responder for older New Yorkers and our volunteers play an essential role in this. At the time, I was driving from New Jersey to Citymeals’ warehouse in the Bronx every day with my elderly mother to help pack meal boxes. We were so focused on getting meals to our  meal recipients and how to do that safely. We knew the need for food among older New Yorkers would be immense and that we could count on our volunteers to help reach them quickly.

Over 10,000 volunteers have helped Citymeals during the pandemic — who are they? What inspires them? 
Many of these volunteers were newcomers, who felt compelled to help their vulnerable neighbors during this traumatic time. And they keep coming back because they can see their impact, how grateful our meal recipients are. When one of our meal centers was forced to close down for two weeks and quarantine staff, it was Citymeals volunteers who stepped up and delivered meals to the recipients on those routes. There are so many individuals and organizations that helped us remain resilient.

Volunteers delivering meals

Because of the risk of Covid-19, Friendly Visiting moved from in-person to phone calls. What has the shift to virtual volunteering meant to volunteers and recipients?
Our Friendly Visiting volunteers are an extremely special group of people. They’re devoting time each week to visit with isolated meal recipients in need of companionship. And it was important to maintain those connections, even when they couldn’t meet in person. But it was hard. There were recipients crying on the phone to our volunteers saying how much they missed them. It can be devastating for an older person who has no one else. So we began making time for volunteers to meet and share what they were dealing with. It was like a support group to reassure them aren’t the only ones feeling helpless. 

Citymeals relies on many longstanding corporate volunteer groups to fulfill its mission. What happened with them during this time?
Most of our corporate partners couldn’t bring their employees together, so we lost many folks we previously relied on to deliver meals. Luckily, other individuals stepped up and, in fact, volunteer applications to Citymeals doubled over the same time the year before. Some of our corporate groups volunteered virtually, getting together on Zoom for handmade card-making parties. Others wrote special holiday letters to meal recipients.

Now more corporate groups are making their way back to us. Volunteers from IBM recently delivered meals on the Lower East Side, and our friends from Bloomingdale's delivered Passover boxes last month. Things will pick up as the weather gets warmer, vaccine rates go up and people are less fearful. Our volunteers will, of course, continue taking every precaution to protect our meal recipients.

Delivering to meal recipient

As the city begins opening up, what are you looking forward to?
We're starting to reconnect with people we have missed over the past year. I’m eager for senior centers to reopen and to get more volunteers back to delivering meals and having real connections and conversations with recipients. I think the pandemic has strengthened Citymeals' relationship with our volunteers because they saw just how essential and capable we are. We did not falter, we did not miss a beat. It created a very strong bond between volunteers and Citymeals on Wheels.

Food For Thought