"You're a what?!” He screams into my ear, combating the bass of the speaker propped between us.
“A vol-un-teer,” I repeat, this time louder.
“So, you like . . . make no money?!”
“Nope, no salary for an entire year!” The guitar cuts off midway through my sentence and I am left screaming in the middle of the bar.
This is the point in every one of my “a volunteer walks into a bar” stories where little blue antennae suddenly sprout up through my curls and the person across from me seemingly forgets how to form coherent sentences.
Yes, I know we are in a recession. Yes, I get that a $25 weekly stipend is hardly enough to buy a Metrocard, never mind spend a night out in New York City. No, you don’t have to worry about me affording this drink. Yes, I actually chose to do this for a year.
I am answering every one of his questions in my head. He doesn’t actually ask them but I can tell they are practically bullying his tongue, begging to pop out of his mouth. Instead, he keeps them tucked in his cheek and asks a single question instead, enveloping them all into one neat pile: “Why would you ever do a thing like that?”
It is a good question but encounters like this keep me fumbling for a good answer to pair with it.
Society has already forcibly stamped “Generation Y” on my forehead, at the sight of which older generations stop and scour the floors in search of my pacifier. My generation is (supposedly) the innovative but the impatient, the smart but the selfish. So, in an attempt to avoid talking about the massive “Y” on my face, I find it easier to talk about my second indelible mark: “volunteer.”
I am 22 years old dedicating my first year out of college to a service program in the Bronx, New York. And while it is not always easy to keep it simple in New York City, I am either getting quite creative when it comes to making twenty-five dollars stretch across an entire week, or getting quite diligent at keeping the whole stipend intact until the weekend so as not to be the charity case in a sequined skirt come Friday night.
Though my major living expenses are covered, the recession isn’t exactly taking it easy on me. I still get daily wake-up calls from the sixty-thousand dollars in college debt that have taken up permanent residence at my heels. I am still knee-deep in the slush of a muddy economy right beside my peers, feeling the cold shun of a job market that has shown itself to be quite stingy with the young and hopeful.
When people hear “volunteer,” they picture a girl with empty pockets and a full heart resting her head on newly fluffed pillows of Hope and Change every night. I won’t argue against the full heart, and while I do make wishes for world peace from time to time, I usually just find room to hope that my peers and I will emerge from this recession having learned something valuable, having taken it as a chance to be innovative, motivated, and out-of-the-box with what we can offer to the world, whether the job market has its arms wide open for us or (more likely) not.
“Can you get us into that book everyone is talking about?” She looks up at me with hope that I might understand.
“Yes, that book on the computer.” She wipes a child's nose, reaching between the peeling plastic cereal box lids on the food cart. “You are good with computers, right?”
“Do you mean Facebook?” I ask.
“Yes! That’s the one! Everyone keeps saying we need that.”
Two weeks into my volunteer year, I found myself itching for more opportunities to serve in the surrounding neighborhood.
While my three other roommates work in the Bronx teaching English to immigrants and coordinating daily activities for homeless women and their children, my volunteer work takes place in an office on 43rd street, working for my program’s non-governmental organization. On a daily basis, my work would be far removed from the borough that I longed to get to know beyond the week or two I spent on alternative spring break trips in college.
The urge to get more familiar with the borough led me to Sister Margaret and her community life center just one street away from my apartment in the Bronx, a place I could easily give spare hours to when my work in Manhattan wasn’t demanding a solid eight hours from my day.
Sister Margaret is the Executive Director of a community life center that doubles as a nervous system connecting people throughout the Fordham neighborhood. I met her in person after, for the first time since I was 12, a Google search failed me and produced no results, no number to call, no email to contact. The search engine spat back a blog that had not been updated since 2008 but was meant to suffice for a center that serves over 2000 people daily with everything from immigration services to housing.
We spoke for a while about the time I could give her and the roles I could play. She offered me a spot as an assistant teacher, I would spend my time guiding children to the bathroom and pumping hand sanitizer into a pinwheel of little hands.
“I can sing songs. I can dance. I can color. I can do whatever you need of me,” I told her. “But,” I continued, swallowing hard. “Do you need some help with your website?”
And that was the moment, the very first moment since arriving in the Bronx where I no longer felt like a helpless volunteer who would leave in 12 months without having made an impact. For once I was not burying myself in a pile of social problems with no foreseeable answers, or sulking over the fact that it would take me the whole year to unearth just the questions I had about poverty in the Bronx. I had begun quilting my own purpose: to build a new website for her life center, to get her “into that book,” to lace together the strings of social media with the cords of social good.
If my generation knows one thing extremely well, it is social media. We know the utility of Facebook and how to put up a WordPress site in ten minutes flat. We get the impact of Twitter and we can tag like we were back in elementary school and the streetlights hadn't gone on yet. We were raised with our fingers click clacking on several surfaces at the same time, and although the adult media depicts us as motivated self-starters swinging around some serious entitlement issues in this bad economy, I tend to believe we are getting pretty good at this whole “pushing forward” motion, turning our resumes from white flags into paper airplanes.
“What do you want people to know when they look at the website?” I ask her between doodling notes and potential color schemes onto a fresh pad of yellow paper. “Beyond a theme or layout, what do you want them to see?”
We are cramped into a tiny office space she has made for me, officially embarking on a branding and identity process for her life center, but I’ve already noticed how this small, cluttered desk and old computer greet me much better than my desk in Manhattan. The space she has made is welcoming and warm; the wood surface is replenished daily with pictures, brochures, and documents from throughout the years to help me understand the history of Sister Margaret’s labor in the Bronx.
“That we don’t help people here,” she says, running her fingers along the front cover of an annual review created ten years prior, before picking it up to thumb through the pages. “I want them to know that we help people to help themselves. We may give them the services but they do the rest.”
She goes on to tell me how the center began thirty years ago with a single cup of soup and a roll, how helping one individual through a soup kitchen led to six organizations sprawling and giving throughout the Bronx.
Even with all the relentless cuts in social services, Sister Margaret still keeps her vision for the center in pristine condition as if she opened her doors just yesterday with chicken noodle soup and a roll in hand.
“I’d like to see us open up a nursery in the future. That’s one of my dreams, to be able to extend childcare for newborns.” I am scribbling her words furiously onto the yellow pad of paper, my fingers aching to jot down every dream she digs up before me, every plan she still has for the center even in an aching economy.
Throughout the weeks of collaboration and planning, plotting a whole new look and an interactive site, I learned that Sister Margaret is an expert on beating hearts. She understands the slow, symphonic beat of a woman who has just lost her job and cannot afford to pay her rent or feed her children. She tunes into the quick, strident beats of a stampede of four year olds as they pour out into the playground after naptime. And the awe of it all is how she manages to translate every single beat, fast or slow, into a social service for someone in need. The woman is a master when it comes to matching heartbeats with social services but she knows nothing of online social networking. This is where the recession is hitting the life center the hardest. Sister Margaret struggles with money, grants, and cuts in funding, all while trying to keep up in a world that updates its status every five minutes. She deals with hundreds of flesh and blood individuals every day, but falls victim to a society that thinks she needs a better website.
But in the name of service and what I now know to be compassion, the two of us, spanning a forty-year gap, take time every day to teach one another. She teaches me to stay fixated on heartbeats even in an economy that hypnotizes with dollars signs. I teach her the sounds of social media cooing in the ear, the Zen beauty of a minimalist setup on a website, the pulsating potential of a blank Tumblr page. Together we show one another what is inside the box and teach how to use it to work outside. We work to close a generational and economic gap with heartbeats and hash tags, every single day.
“Can you change this job description for me?” She hands me the piece of computer paper. “Tell them that I want you. Everything that you did, I want that again.”
She needs to update the job description of the position I have held in the past six months and send it back to my supervisors for next year’s volunteer. I’ve done nothing listed in the first description and so I draft a new one, packed to the brim with my own added hope that the next volunteer will be as competent enough with keyboard shortcuts to keep the online networking of this life center afloat.
A knot ties in my stomach as I think about leaving this place, of another someone coming into my spot and learning to tie whatever I leave undone, but I think of all the progress that has emerged from this one year, a year that I thought would just be a waiting period. I thought I would wait out the storm of the recession as I stalled until the job market chose to embrace me and my generation. But that wasn't the way it worked out.
This essay appear in Shareable's paperback Share or Die published by New Society, available from Amazon. Share or Die is also available for Kindle, iPad, and other e-readers. For the next article in Share or Die, Ryan Gleason's "The Janus-Faced Craigslist", click here.