Living the Line

Volunteering Increasing Amongst Young Adults in New York City

Fourteen years ago, Pastor Marian Hutchins and her partners at The Father’s Heart Ministries began their mission of helping people in poverty. Their main project was hosting a weekly soup kitchen on Saturdays at 6am. The program had a major problem: no one wanted to volunteer. Since 2008, however, Hutchins has noticed not only an increased desire to serve from members of her church, but from the community at large.

“After the recession, poverty became more real to people, and less of an abstract idea; nobody’s afraid to lose their Saturdays anymore,” says Hutchins.

The Father’s Heart, a family-oriented church located in New York City’s Lower East Side, now has a three-month waiting list for volunteers for their weekly soup kitchen, which feeds between 500-700 people.  In addition to congregation members, the approximately 90 volunteers each week come from the school groups, companies, and the community. Some Saturdays the flood of volunteers is so great that the church has to turn people away.

“I grew up living in the suburbs, where everything seemed perfect,” says Gracie Gordon, 26, who volunteers regularly. “Moving to the city and seeing so much need, and knowing that I’m in a position to help, I really see no other choice.”

Volunteerism has in fact become more popular across the city since the economic downturn. Increasingly, it is young people that are lining up to give their time. In 2009, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, young adults between the ages of 16-24 were the least likely to volunteer, comprising 18 percent of the nation’s volunteers. In January 2011, the number jumped to almost 22 percent of the volunteers nationwide, the largest increase in volunteer activity.

In New York City volunteer activity has either remained steady or increased at three out of every four non-profit organizations, according to a report published by the Urban Institute, which offers data and research on social and economic issues.

“The economic downturn has decimated funding for non-profits, but not the underlying networks and good will that bode well for their long term success,” says Thomas Pollack, the Institute’s Senior Research Associate, in the report.

Aside from volunteering at shelters and soup kitchens, New York City’s young adults are participating in service learning projects in the classroom, a phenomenon as of late. Service learning, which is designed to use practical skills from the classroom to benefit those in the community, has risen in popularity under the Obama administration. Since 2009, volunteerism has become more formalized, with federal programs encouraging people to donate their time, and service activities have become a standard element of curriculum in many schools.

“It’s a way to keep students motivated and to let them see how they can use what they’re learning in the classroom in an authentic, real-world situation,” says Arlene Kemmerer, Service Learning Coordinator and professor at Queensborough Community College.

The College is currently in the process of collecting research and data on the long-term effects of service learning projects on the young adults involved. It is their hope that the projects will increase volunteer activity amongst students on their own time in the future.

Many young adults feel as though they have no choice but to volunteer in order to repair the state of the economy and prepare the way for their own successes in the future.

“Our generation as young people, we see that this is our future, so maybe the older generations, they just saw the progress after the great depression, so things were good,” says Jessi Marquez, 26, founder of FreelyBe, an organization dedicated to finding corporate sponsorship for non-profit organizations.  “But now our generation is saying if we don’t do something, there’s gonna be real problems ahead, and there are actually bigger issues than taking home a big paycheck.”

Despite the enthusiasm for volunteering, some warn that donating time will not be enough.

“There’s actually something flawed about the term charity,” argues Allison Sesso, The Deputy Executive Director of The Foundation Center of New York City, a database that keep tracks of the financials for non-profits.

“Running a non-profit is like running a business and it requires money, even just to supervise the volunteers that show up. Sometimes peoples’ goodwill isn’t enough if they don’t know what to do with it.”

Pastor Hutchins disagrees. “It’s easier to throw money out there than it is to let you heart be broken, to identify with a piece of the failure, and to see the exorbitant need in front of you,” she says.

While it’s difficult to determine whether money or time is more valuable, Hutchins and nonprofits like the Fathers Heart appreciate donations of time in a period when the money is not free flowing, but still believe that in the long run, volunteerism will encourage a change in the future.

“Statistics mean nothing,” she says. “At the end of the day, it’s the flesh and blood that humanize the problem and inspire people to make really a difference.”

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