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It all started with a shift: The power of volunteering at The Bowery Mission

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At The Bowery Mission, we often say “it all begins with a meal.” Time and time again, we have seen people who first came to us for a meal go on to become part of our community and achieve full recovery and independence.

However, what we don’t always talk about is that our volunteers often frequently experience life transformation too — “It all begins with a meal” can apply to people serving the meals as well! 

Over the years, we’ve seen countless New Yorkers begin by serving one shift, and then go on to use their gifts and talents to serve our community in deep and lasting ways. Some have found a new sense of meaning and purpose through volunteering. Others have found new friends. Still others have found a path to character development in their own lives.

This month, as we celebrate Volunteer Appreciation Month, we are taking a moment to highlight a number of ways volunteers have continued to connect with our work after serving one shift. Here are five ways our volunteers have gone from serving one meal to engaging in something greater.

1. Volunteering led me to… find a “home away from home.”

Many volunteers at The Bowery Mission say helping to serve meals has given them a place where they belong, a home away from home.

Aretha Choi got the idea to volunteer at The Bowery Mission after passing by our campus on a walk. Her 9-5 tech job didn’t afford many opportunities for human contact — and she wanted a way to give back.

“After serving that first shift, I just remember thinking, ‘this is the best thing I do with my entire week,’” she recalls. “I’m not thinking about anything else when I’m here, I’m just fully present.”

Aretha says she loves volunteering at the Mission because she gets to be part of a community that is empathetic and warm.

Volunteer Aretha Choi serves the breakfast shift weekly at The Bowery Mission.

“It was very complicated for me growing up. Having a ‘home’ was something that I never really understood as a child,” Aretha says. “But when I come to the Mission I feel a sense of belonging. A home is not just a physical place. It’s relationships. It can even be certain feelings you’re able to feel in a space.”

Today Aretha loves being part of creating that “home” for others during her weekly breakfast shift. “There was a moment where I realized I remembered what people’s preferences were for breakfast — like, ‘this person doesn’t want coffee,’ or ‘this person only takes a pastry.’ That moment felt good for me. I was like, “oh, I have a place here at The Bowery Mission.”

2. Volunteering led me to… become part of the Associate Board. 

Like Aretha, Rachel Margolin first decided to volunteer at The Bowery Mission after walking by our flagship location every single day on the way to work. “It always seemed like a really good environment,” she says. “Even the people standing in line seemed happy to be there and were hanging out and talking to one another.”

On her first meal shift, she remembers serving alongside a father and daughter. She was struck by the manner in which the other volunteers knew each other and were part of a larger community. “It was clear to me that people were there for a reason and wanted to keep coming back,” Rachel says. “After that first shift, I was like, ‘OK, I need to do this more often.’”

After volunteering for a few months, Rachel began to feel that she was only seeing a small portion of The Bowery Mission’s work. So, she took the initiative to deepen her engagement by joining The Bowery Mission’s Associate Board.

“I’m very privileged to be working full time, but I think it’s also crucial to give back and put my passion into something other than work,” she says. “As I started my career, it had become really important for me to find an organization I felt passionate about and could give time to on a regular basis.” — Rachel

3. Volunteering led me to… donate my skills and expertise.

After volunteering, many people have gone on to support our work by lending their professional expertise in a specialized area. Nurse practitioner Elaine Tsui first connected to The Bowery Mission as a general volunteer at the Don’t Walk By winter outreach.

Volunteers smiling
Elaine Tsui (second from right) volunteering in 2018.

After seeing the impact of the work up close, she went on to serve as a triage nurse in The Bowery Mission’s Wednesday night medical clinic. She then served as one of the clinic’s chief directors for several years.

“When I think about volunteering at The Bowery Mission I think about teamwork,” Elaine says. “I found myself staying late after the clinic, just talking to the other volunteers. It’s so fulfilling to take care of people together, and we have a lot of fun. I think that’s partly why I keep coming back.”

She continues: “I’m so impressed with doctors and nurses who can come in after a long shift at work and then sit for another two and three hours and see patients. We just have a really caring, generous bunch of people.”

4. Volunteering led me to… join The Bowery Mission team.

A surprising number of volunteers have been inspired to join our staff. In fact, none other than our President & CEO James Winans began as a summer volunteer — and then climbed the ranks to become our organization’s top leader.

James Winans volunteers at the Mission in 1999.
Bowery Mission CEO James Winans volunteers during the COVID-19 pandemic, June 2021.

Many leaders in our kitchen — like Chef Susan, Chef Aishia, Chef Yolanda and Chef Becky — started out working just one shift.

Chef Yolanda was working as a teacher when COVID-19 hit. Concerned for her neighbors who had nowhere to shelter in place, she began handing out supplies on the street — walking from 34th street all the way up to 59th while talking to people and handing out food. “I realized then there was a lot more that I could not see and that I needed to be part of something bigger,” she says.

Eager to connect even more with people in need, Yolanda began volunteering regularly at The Bowery Mission. “I was able to see people more regularly, to sit down with them and get to know their stories,” she says. “It was mind-blowing to connect with people on a deeper level.” 

Chef Yolanda went on to serve more than 200 volunteer hours at The Bowery Mission, becoming a critical part of our daily operations. “Eventually, I could not sleep without dreaming about The Bowery Mission. I could not wake up without wondering what was happening in the mornings there.”

With encouragement from our staff, Yolanda finally applied for a position on The Bowery Mission’s Food Services team. Despite having never worked in food or hospitality before, she had gained hands-on experience by volunteering almost daily at the Mission.

Today, Chef Yolanda oversees the preparation and service of full meals at the Mission — and she even recently coordinated meals for the Don’t Walk By winter outreach. In less than two years, she went from being a concerned bystander to a regular volunteer to a part-time staff member to a full-time dishwasher and prep cook to a full-time Food Services Associate.

It started with me wanting to help people and put ‘feet to my faith.’ And then it turned into me growing and developing as a person,” she says. “I just feel so embraced here. The Mission is my family.” — Chef Yolanda

5. Volunteering led me to… get my company involved to provide financial support and employee service opportunities.

Time and time again, our volunteers have rallied their families and networks, their companies and their churches to engage in our work. Volunteering is a great way to connect with others — and what better way to build rapport than serving your community together?

Patrick Fitzgerald is one of those solo volunteers who went on to get his entire company, VideoAmp, involved in financially supporting and serving at The Bowery Mission each month. He also became part of our “SWAT” volunteer team — a group of high impact volunteers committed to serving last minute shifts.

Patrick, who works in sales, says volunteering began as a great way to demonstrate his personal commitment to giving back. “It’s about paying it forward without expecting anything in return,” he says. “And in the meantime, you get the enjoyment of making someone else’s day just a little bit better.”

Today, VideoAmp employees volunteer once a month together at the Mission. “It’s been great to have our team step out of the normal workday and get involved in the community that we all love and live in,” Patrick says.

VideoAmp employees volunteering at The Bowery Mission.

Volunteer Today! 

We at The Bowery Mission are so thankful for the many friends who come alongside us, filling in gaps with their hands and hearts to care for our community in need. Volunteering to serve another person can be a life-changing experience, sparking a ripple of compassion that begins with one life and goes on to impact an entire community. Learn more and sign up today.