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BANK ON IT: Food Bank For New York City's Blog

Fireworks of a Different Kind

By Jean Thompson

Exactly one year ago today, I had my first exposure to Food Bank For New York City's Community Kitchen & Food Pantry in West Harlem. We had just started a program at my chocolate company with the introduction of a new bar, called jcoco, where we make a donation that helps provide a fresh serving of food to American food banks in the cities where the bars are sold. In NYC, we chose Food Bank For New York City because it is an overarching organization that has far-reaching tentacles in NYC, and a clear, focused mission to stomp out hunger.

I showed up to volunteer and was met by the lovely Food Bank employee Tiffany, who was brand new to the organization, and participating in her first soup kitchen volunteer stint, too. We donned our hairnets and aprons and were set up to serve the long queue of New Yorkers waiting for the soup kitchen to open. Debbie, a longtime Food Bank employee was in charge of our efforts. She had a certain confidence and comfort in her demeanor that told me she had done this a few times before. She was very specific in her instructions: "Don't let anyone have more than one helping, or we might run out of food and some people will go without." This made a lot of sense to me.

The doors opened and the people started streaming in. They knew the routine – they had done this before, too. They came in every shape, color, age and demographic. They were super excited that oxtail was on the menu that day. I was surprised and delighted that virtually every person thanked us for coming to help, and for the food. Too many times in my life I have been disappointed by someone forgetting to thank me for a ride, or my business, or other little things. These people did not forget. As Debbie mentioned, many of them asked for more food than we were instructed to hand out. I wanted to give them just a half serving more; they looked hungry. Debbie stationed herself right next to me, probably because she sensed I would be too soft and she wanted to be there to remind me that there just wasn't enough to go around. I was surprised by the number of people that arrived around 5:30, harried because (I figured) they were rushing to get there after work. Yes, many of Food Bank's clients work and still cannot afford dinner for themselves or their families. As I scooped the vegetables and rice onto the plates, while trying to smile at every person, my brain was taking it all in and making sense of it. I didn't know college kids needed help with meals! What about that sweet young mother with two kids?

The Community Kitchen's facility is set up to look like a cafeteria, and music is piped in so the clients can dine in comfort. We were serving dinner on the night of July 3rd and all of a sudden Celine Dion came over the speaker singing God Bless America. The woman has the voice of an angel, and music has always had a way of penetrating my psyche and bringing forth emotions otherwise very well managed and suppressed. I started thinking, "Why does this happen in the USA?!" It didn't seem right. Then I realized that it was Americans working at Food Bank and this soup kitchen: helping other Americans, volunteering their time, and making it their life mission to do so. At that point that I realized that tears were streaming down my (usually stoic) face, and I had to hand my serving spoons to Tiffany to cover for me while I collected myself so the steady line of New Yorkers wouldn't see my emotions spilling all over my face.

Happy Birthday, America. Thank you for freedom and opportunity, and everything I cherish about my country. Thank you to Margarette, Tiffany, Debbie and all the great people at Food Bank for leading the charge in New York City to rid this great city of hunger...someday soon.

Jean Thompson
CEO, Seattle Chocolates
President's Council Member, Food Bank For New York City

A Senior in Service

By Ruth Danis

When the Forest Hills Jewish Center, of which I'm a member, announced a volunteer project at Food Bank For New York City, I wanted to join in. I'm 89 years old and I volunteer quite a bit. It's important for seniors to stay involved in the community. It keeps you active and connected.

My experience at Food Bank was wonderful. I helped repack food at their Bronx warehouse and although it was a lot of work, I enjoyed spending time with all the other volunteers. Most of all, it felt great to be a part of something so meaningful--to really make a difference.

I knew that my contribution that day would help many people in need all across New York City, especially seniors. That was my whole purpose in going. As a senior myself, I feel for other seniors who are having a hard time.

Helping others is what we're here for. If we're lucky enough to have, we must give to those who don't have. That's a lesson I hope my seven great-grandchildren learn through my example.

Ruth Danis, a former teacher for 25 years, lives in Forest Hills, Queens.

Teaming Up Against Hunger

By Oronde Tennant

With busy lives, it can be hard to find time to volunteer. But it's definitely worth the effort. The benefits of volunteering with Food Bank For New York City have been enormous--not just for me but for my entire Green City Force team. We've had the opportunity to connect with our community and make it a better place, and also strengthen our ties to those we serve. But don't just take it from me. Here's what my team had to say about our time volunteering with Food Bank.

  • Amani Coleman: "My experience at Food Bank has been great. The fact that my team and I were able to help families who are hungry is a blessing. I know the hardships that come with not having enough food to eat."
  • Decatur Goodden: "Volunteering with Food Bank gave me the opportunity to give back to people in need by packing thousands of pounds of food. It also allowed me to network with various volunteer organizations."
  • John Vicent and Irving Wright: "Repacking food might seem like a tedious task, but it is a very important job that leads to positive results. We had the pleasure of working with other volunteers from other organizations in the area. The highlight of our service was learning the metrics (how much food we repacked). Knowing that we repacked large amounts of food that will go to families in need is a rewarding feeling."
  • Hector Ventura: "The team and I volunteered for several months and now we are pros at repacking meals for the needy. The whole experience has been superb."
  • Flormaria Delarosa: "I know that everything we did at Food Bank has really impacted people who have very little. That makes volunteering all the more important."
  • Daniel Egipciago: "Helping those in need has changed my outlook on the world and I want to continue offering my services to this important effort."
  • Robert Malcolm: "I love Food Bank! It was a great and uplifting experience. I'm proud to have made such a difference in the lives of New York City residents in need."

Oronde Tennant is a Team Leader for Green City Force. He and his team of AmeriCorps members volunteered at Food Bank For New York City this year from February through April.

A Volunteering Sabbatical in NYC

by Kathy Berry

After my daughters were grown and I had time on my hands, I discovered the joy of volunteerism. I had always helped out at my girls' schools, but when I fulfilled a major dream and moved to New York City in October 2013 I decided to take a sabbatical so I could do even more. On the recommendation of a friend, I interviewed for a volunteer opportunity with Food Bank For New York City and was lucky enough to be placed in an Event Lead position at the New York City Wine & Food Festival (NYCWFF). My first assignment was managing a team of volunteers inside the festival; then I was moved outside to help with registration.

I loved the young people I worked with. The support volunteers were wonderful, and when one of them called me Mama Kathy, my heart sang. The guests were friendly, fun, and excited to be there. Sylvester Stallone came right by me. So did Joe Namath. Each night when I was done with my volunteer duties, I popped into the evenings' events: Burger Bash hosted by Rachel Ray. Tequila and Tacos with Bobby Flay. So much fun, and oh, the food!

My only regret is that I didn't get to chat much with my fellow Event Leads as I was outside and they were inside. But we caught up, giggled, and relived all the fun moments when we did see each other. I have their emails. Hopefully we can connect and have a reunion. More new friends!

I loved everything I did that weekend, and it wouldn't be my last time volunteering with Food Bank. Just a few weeks later I was at their downtown Manhattan office doing volunteer outreach. While I was making my phone calls, Food Bank President and CEO Margarette Purvis gathered the staff for an exciting announcement. NY1 News had just selected the Food Bank For New York City as the "New Yorkers of the Year"! I was moved, humbled, and proud to be helping in any small way that I could for such a wonderful organization. It has become one of my favorite places to volunteer.

Kathy Berry is a healthcare professional who is currently taking a sabbatical to volunteer throughout New York City.

Volunteering Is Its Own Reward

By Jonathan Kong

The story of how I started volunteering began last year when I saw the events of the Boston Marathon unfold on television. After that day, I felt a strong need to help others, so I decided to volunteer at Food Bank For New York City.

My first project was on Coney Island, packing pantry bags at an elementary school for children to take home as part of Food Bank's ongoing Hurricane Sandy relief efforts. That was just the beginning. I've also helped out at Food Bank's Community Kitchen and Food Pantry in Harlem and I volunteer regularly at other charities within Food Bank's network. At Cathedral Community Cares I help clients get clothes from the Clothing Closet, and at Bed-Stuy Campaign Against Hunger I help make compost and plant seeds in the vegetable gardens. I even appeared in Food Bank's public service announcement, which aired on the NASDAQ building in Times Square throughout the month of September.

When Food Bank issued its "30 For 30 Challenge" last year, challenging volunteers to complete 30 hours of service within the 30 days of September, I decided to take it on in honor of my grandfather, who was in extremely poor health at the time. The first volunteer to reach 30 hours would win a Caribbean cruise--and I won! The cruise exceeded my expectations. There were so many fun activities on board, from Zumba to stage shows to late night dance parties. I had a wonderful time.

Winning a vacation because I volunteer is great, but simply being able to help other people is the real reward.

Jonathan Kong has been a Food Bank For New York City volunteer for nearly a year.

Why I Became a VITA Volunteer

by Ling Zeng

As a graduate accounting student, I'd been thinking of how I could contribute my knowledge and skills in order to give back to the community. Food Bank For New York City's Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program offered me the perfect opportunity. However, it was not easy for an international student like me, who wasn't familiar with the U.S. tax system, to get the tax preparation certification. Fortunately, the veteran instructors at Food Bank were really patient and friendly with their teaching methods. And I'm proud to say that I did pass the exam and earned my certification.

Through Food Bank's VITA program I gained hands-on experience interacting with clients. Working one-on-one with people and helping them get all the refunds to which they're entitled is my passion. It's what I want to do in my future career. One of the things I enjoyed most as a VITA volunteer was seeing the smiles come across clients' faces when they realized how much money they were getting back from their tax returns. The sense of honor I felt assisting people who really need help can never be exaggerated.

One thing that I noticed was that many low-income families who need tax assistance are non-English speaking. That language barrier can be a challenge for both the volunteer and the client. Thankfully Food Bank's VITA program does have bilingual volunteers. But they can always use more. So I encourage multilingual speakers to join this important program and help these families in need. It's a wonderful experience.

Ling Zeng is an international graduate student at St John's University, a Food Bank For New York City VITA partner.

My MLK Day at Food Bank

By Samantha Katel (second row, far left)

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, "Life's most persistent and urgent question is: 'What are you doing for others?'" In honor of MLK Day, I went with my mother to Food Bank's Community Kitchen and Food Pantry in Harlem to make lunch for children who are hungry. Not just any children--kids who are homeless or live in shelters and can't afford to buy food or necessities. The director of the Community Kitchen told all of us volunteers that it's especially hard for them during the winter. He told us about a woman and baby that he saw walking outside in the cold with no place to go.

The volunteers were given bright orange MLK "Weekend of Service" T-shirts, buttons and wristbands, as well as plastic gloves and hair nets for cleanliness. Then we were put to work, assembly line-style, packing lunch bags. Half of us made sandwiches; the other half made chocolate chip and oatmeal raisin cookies. My job was to drop little balls of batter onto about 40 trays before they were put into the ovens. I was careful not to eat any of the finished cookies. It was tempting because they smelled so delicious, but I didn't want to take any away from the homeless kids. The lunch bags included a sandwich, potato chips and a juice box. Messages of love and luck were written in markers by a group of girl scouts who came up from Brooklyn.

There was one special moment that I'll never forget. As I was scooping the cookies into baggies, I looked up to see our new mayor, Bill de Blasio! He thanked us for our service, spoke to the TV cameras that were there, and then rolled up his sleeves to help us with the lunches. The mayor spoke about how we should help others, not just one day a year, but every day. It was really fun and a great feeling to know that I was helping people who are in need and have nowhere else to turn. It was a perfect way to honor Reverend King.

Samantha Katel, 12, is a seventh-grader at the Mandell School in Manhattan.

Helping Kids in a New Way

by Angela Ebron

All of my volunteer experiences over the years have involved children--by choice. I've worked with various social service groups to tutor elementary school kids from low-income families who were considered "at risk." (Although I prefer my colleague Beau's more accurate way of putting it: "at promise.") I've also performed front desk triage at an organization in New York City that has been helping teens in need become successful adults for more than 40 years. Now, as part of Food Bank For New York City, I get to continue serving children, but in a whole new way.

I recently volunteered at our Community Kitchen and Food Pantry in Harlem with the rest of Food Bank's Marketing and Communications team. We spent the day stocking pantry shelves and preparing dinner. As I placed fresh vegetables into bins, put frozen meats into the freezer, folded utensils into napkins, and dished piping hot chicken into food containers for that day's dinner service, I thought about all the families who would come through the doors later that afternoon to get a hot meal or bags full of groceries to take home.

In the past, I worked with kids one-on-one. That's what I've always loved most about volunteering -- having an immediate connection. There's just something so gratifying about building a bond with a child who is relying on you. But helping out at our Community Kitchen and Food Pantry made me realize that I can still have a huge impact on children's lives, even if they're not right there with me. One in 5 children in New York City relies on a soup kitchen or food pantry to eat. So the hours I spent helping stock shelves and prepare meals made a real difference in a child's life that day. And knowing that is every bit as gratifying. If you'd like to volunteer too, click here.

Angela Ebron is Food Bank For New York City's writer and editor.

Why I Volunteer

By Victoria Dennis

I've been lucky to volunteer in Food Bank's Benefits Access department, where I get to serve hundreds of low-income New Yorkers each month. Here at the call center we help clients gain and maintain access to SNAP (food stamp) benefits, refer clients to food pantries and soup kitchens, and provide community outreach services. We also offer information and referral services to clients facing a broad range of problems. Since this fall, we have provided special support to neighbors affected by super storm Sandy.

Like many others in Food Bank's community, I volunteer because hunger and food insecurity are pressing problems for far too many of our neighbors. Many of our clients are facing chronic, acute or life-threatening illnesses, and often crippling health care costs. Others are working parents whose low-wage jobs can't adequately cover the cost of food for their families. Every day, the Food Bank helps reduce hunger and food shortages for New Yorkers in need.

My relationship with Food Bank began as a donor--and I'm still one today. But two and a half years ago, as the devastating effects of the recession deepened, I decided to try my hand at volunteering here.

The rewards of volunteering at Food Bank are immeasurable. I am especially gratified when I can help older low-income New Yorkers, a growing number of whom now find the costs of living and food a huge challenge. It's an honor for me to work with our highly skilled Benefits Access staff. They are patient, respectful and compassionate while serving anxious, food insecure families who face a daunting bureaucracy. Another highlight of my work has been my contact with the unsung heroes: the wonderful volunteers in our network of food pantries and soup kitchens who give countless hours of service.

In the current fiscal climate, our most vulnerable neighbors face daunting challenges, and hunger is a very real problem for them. But a group of concerned citizens can make a difference. And that's why I volunteer at Food Bank. If you'd like to volunteer too, please click here.

Victoria Dennis, LMSW, is a Benefits Access Call Center volunteer at Food Bank For New York City.

A Gift for Brooklyn

by Pat Curtin

On a cold December morning just before Christmas I made my way through Brooklyn to attend a very special event. The Shawn Carter Scholarship Foundation (SCF), together with Food Bank For New York City and two of its member agencies, The River Fund and Bed-Stuy Campaign Against Hunger, joined forces to deliver 500 meals to residents there affected by Hurricane Sandy. Families from New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) public and rent-subsidized housing in Red Hook and Gravesend--many of whom had been without heat or power due to flooding from the storm--received vouchers for emergency relief packages filled with frozen chicken, stuffing, potatoes, milk and other essentials to make the holiday season a little easier. "I've spent the last month at my cousin's house in New Jersey," one grateful resident told me. "Now that I'm back home, I just want to try to relax." Among those affected by Hurricane Sandy was Gloria Carter, CEO of the Shawn Carter Scholarship Foundation. I had a chance to talk to her before the food drive kicked off and she told me that her own house was damaged in the storm. In fact, it was the severity of Sandy--and its widespread impact on her community--that spurred her to get involved. "There are so many people who are still devastated, who don't have water or food," Ms. Carter told me. "I lost my house, but I'm here. I have food and water. The people who don't have those things...someone needs to provide it for them." The Shawn Carter Scholarship Foundation's partnership with Food Bank For New York City marks a departure in SCF's usual holiday efforts. "I usually do a toy drive" Ms. Carter said, "but because of the devastation, I decided I'd like to feed people. That's why I did this." However, Ms. Carter and her volunteers couldn't stray too far from their toy drive roots, especially so close to the holiday season. They brought along two large bags of stuffed animals and sports hats--early Christmas presents that were a big hit with the kids. As the event wound down, I asked Ms. Carter how she thought the day went. "[People] were able to get what they needed today, and were really appreciative," she told me. "It ended up really nice." I think the families of Red Hook and Gravesend who were there that day would agree.

Pat Curtin is the Tiered Engagement Network Coordinator at Food Bank For New York City.

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