Despite all the communal hype, the holiday season can be a very inward-looking affair.
While you hear phrases like “good will toward men,” and “peace on earth,” let’s face it, for so many Staten Island families, the focus is mainly on their own family.
Kids worry about the gifts they hope to get; parents are caught up in the frenzy of providing a festive meal, a decorative house, and all the requisite shopping. The celebrations are largely family-oriented, with Nana and Poppy coming for latkes and brisket, cousins salivating over lasagna and turkey with all the trimmings.
It can all seem pretty self-serving.
There is a way to balance all this, however, say those knee-deep in the volunteer community: Plan to donate time and effort to help others now and in the coming year.
According to Dennis McKeon, executive director of Where-To-Turn, a nonprofit that promotes a wide variety of volunteer opportunities on Staten Island, this is one gift that will pay it forward for years, when it comes to your children’s emotional development and appreciation of community.
“It’s a learning process,” he explained. “A, it gives kids something to do, and B, it keeps them out of trouble.”
But, added McKeon, it does a lot more than that. “It opens their eyes up to some of the issues we have on Staten Island. And the younger you can get them to volunteer, the more likely you are to get them hooked.”
Thirteen years ago, McKeon’s group started a shoveling program to help out seniors who were shut in after a snowfall, largely because they needed help digging out. Depending on the year, McKeon said he’s had anywhere from 400 to 700 kids who’ve been paired with a senior near their home.
Geared to youngsters in seventh-grade and older, the program has been, for many of the able-bodied shovelers, the source of commitment to a goal. “You get to know a senior citizen. Most of them (the participants) stay with the same senior until they go to college. Then, like a paper route, they pass it on to a younger brother or sister,” explained McKeon.
“That’s the program we are really pushing on because we have over 2,500 seniors requesting the service,” he said.
To date, the bulk of the students participating in the program have come from Monsignor Farrell High School in Oakwood and St. Peter’s Boys High School in New Brighton.
This year, however, said McKeon, he’s extending his outreach by working with City Council members to find a point person to coordinate with in each of the borough’s intermediate and high schools, in an effort to grow the number of shovelers.
McKeon said those who start volunteering usually re-up. “They get some satisfaction out of doing something,” he said.
McKeon isn’t the only resource for volunteer opportunities out there.
Every third Saturday of the month, Trinity Lutheran Church in Stapleton invites families with children 10 years and older to serve about 150 home-cooked meals, restaurant-style in its soup kitchen. The church’s weekly Food Pantry is open from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.; the meals are served between noon and 1 p.m. Trinity’s Food Ministry has been in operation for 25 years, according to its website.
Parents can reach out to the church directly, or visit newyorkcares.org, where the opportunity is one of several listed on Staten Island — among them helping at the Council of Jewish Organizations’ food pantry in Port Richmond and the Mobile Market in Stapleton.
Volunteers are also needed for a dance program in Stapleton and two Saturday programs at PS 20 in Port Richmond — Sports Explorers where kids learn about healthy lifestyles, games, sports and fun, and Culinary Explorers where the focus is on food sourcing and preparation.
Schools, in fact, are a great source of spirit and willing hands, according to Joe Delaney of Pleasant Plains, who regularly helps spear-head the Staten Island Notre Dame Club’s Bread of Life Drive — a spring-time food collection that last year brought in 70,000 items that were donated to over 20 groups on Staten Island, to be distributed to those in need.
“I get asked all the time — can I get my kids involved? Absolutely,” said Delaney.
“We start to create a culture of giving among the kids,” Delaney continued, speaking of the Bread of Life Drive. He said, as an adult organizer, he can feel “the pride the kids take in giving back to their community in making a difference. Kids take away a sense of accomplishment. And for older students, it starts to become something they can put on their resume. ‘Not only did I do good, I learned how to do it,’” explained Delaney.
McKeon agrees that school children are ready, eager and able.
“Academy of St. Dorothy just called me up,” he said. “They’re going to adopt the Old Town train station this year and keep it litter-free. We’re going to supply the bags and materials they need. We’re going to try this with other schools, asking them to adopt locations around their schools. We’ll give them community service credits for doing that.” (The train station is right behind the school grounds in Grasmere.)
Community service credits are something that schools on Staten Island are demanding that kids compile before they graduate, said Jim Scarcella, who works with the Natural Resources Protective Association on Staten Island and helps kids track the hours they put in at beach cleanups. According to Scarcella, high-school students need 25 community service credits to graduate; intermediate school students need 12.
According to generationOn, a website devoted to the global youth service movement, the benefits of volunteering as a family are five-fold:
• Kids and teens cultivate positive values, such as caring and empathy, and develop a commitment to service both now and in the future.
• By participating in volunteer activities, kids and teens feel appreciated and respected as well as learn new skills.
• Parents get to spend quality time with their children in a positive environment while serving as role models, leading by example, and passing on important values.
• Families increase their sense of cohesion, well-being and connections to the broader community.
• The combination of ages and generations within a family means they have everything needed to make meaningful change in the community: Energy, creativity, passion, knowledge and experience, as well as different perspectives and skills.
Perhaps, McKeon said it best: “ We do a lot of cleanups now. We work with my clean team; we work with the Natural Resources Protective Association or Friends of Abandoned Cemeteries. You can see that the kids are shocked at how much stuff, how bad litter and dumping is on Staten Island. ‘I’ll think twice now about dropping my gum wrapper on the floor,’ they’ll say. They can physically see they’re doing something to make Staten Island a better place to live.”
WANT TO VOLUNTEER?
(CLICK HERE to visit the volunteer opportunity page.)
Here are some places to reach out to if you or your family wants to donate some time to a good cause. (By the way, ask at almost any house of worship or civic association near your home and chances are, there will be plenty of volunteer initiatives to pick from.)
newyorkcares.org — A New York City-wide clearinghouse that lists projects in need of volunteers, by borough. It is updated throughout the year.
Where-to-Turn.org — Staten Island-based volunteer initiatives, for all ages ranging from 7th-grade and up, including snow shoveling for seniors, graffiti removal, prom-dress collection, cleanups, outdated campaign sign tear-downs, and opportunities at New York Blood Services, which is looking for students to work at the donor center. (Most opportunities come with community service credits.)
Bread of Life Drive — Call Joseph Delaney at 718-967-9825 or [email protected] Most schools participate and will send home information as the collection time nears, but if your family or a civic group wants to get involved and you haven’t been tapped yet, reach out and get the particulars.
Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church — To find out more about its Food Ministry, call the church at 718-447-0526.
Natural Resources Protective Association (NRPA) — This group organizes shore-front cleanups throughout the year and maintains a calendar of upcoming opportunities on its website at www.nrpa.com; email [email protected], or call 718-987-6037 (Community service hours are certified by Jim Scarcella at 718-873-4291).
Project Hospitality — Project Hospitality, Inc. reaches out to community members who are hungry, homeless or otherwise in need in order to work with them to achieve their self-sufficiency — thereby enhancing the quality of life for our community. If you would like to volunteer, please contact the group at 718-448-1544, ext. 134, or e-mail at [email protected] Families, children and groups are welcome to volunteer.
TIPS FOR SELECTING A SELECT A GOOD CAUSE: TALK IT OVER
• What interests us? What do we care about most?
• What do we like to do?
• What skills and talents can we offer?
• What projects would be suitable for all our family members?
• How much time do we have?
• How might the volunteering experience benefit our family?
By Marjorie Hack, a Staten Island writer.