Melissa Herrera

Adi Talwar

Melissa Herrera in the lobby of her apartment building in Brooklyn. She’s been volunteering from home with a phone bank since April.

In late April, as the city was still seeing thousands of new COVID-19 cases each day, Melissa Herrera began volunteering with the service organization New York Cares, making phone calls to families on behalf of the Department of Education to ensure students were able to access their online classes.

Herrera, 33, did the phone-banking work from her Brooklyn home: making sure children received their DOE-issued iPads, that they have a WiFi connection, troubleshooting small issues and connecting families with resources if they needed them.

“To try to help them in any way possible — [even] if it’s just giving them the phone number to the DOE help desk,” she says. A Spanish speaker, Herrera found she could be especially useful to Spanish-speaking families as they adjusted to remote learning. “I feel I’ve definitely made a difference.”

The work has made a difference to her, too. Herrera moved to New York last fall, and initially planned to volunteer, in person, as a way to get to know the city better. When the pandemic struck the city in March, she’d recently resigned from her job as a finance manager to begin planning her next career move. Working for New York Cares helped her keep her “momentum” during the isolation of the unexpected lockdown, she says.

“My partner is here working, but he’s busy all day. Here I am feeling somewhat helpless,” she recalls, saying the volunteer job became “something I was looking forward to doing more on a daily basis.”

Herrera isn’t the only one to join the ranks of the volunteer workforce during the pandemic: New York Cares, which helps coordinate the city’s emergency volunteer response efforts, has gotten new requests from 13,000 New Yorkers wanting to help out since mid-March, what Executive Director Gary Bagley calls “a big showing,” similar in scale to what they saw following Hurricane Sandy. Residents have also stepped up in other ways, forming grassroots Mutual Aid Networks to deliver meals and groceries to neighbors in need.

“That surge in people wanting to help their neighbors really is, and continues to be, incredible,” says Anusha Venkataraman, chief service officer for the city who leads NYC Service, a branch of the mayor’s office that focuses on volunteerism.

But the crisis has also posed a number of new challenges, both for the volunteers and the organizations they serve. Many nonprofits, when possible, have moved their service opportunities to remote work, but others have had to reduce or altogether suspend programs because of the lockdown. Groups that are still doing public-facing work, such as meal delivery and food pantries programs, have had to scramble to equip volunteers with PPE and to institute social distancing guidelines. There’s also the very real threat of “volunteer fatigue” as the months pass, especially as more New Yorkers head back to work and may not have the same amount of time or energy to devote to volunteering.

“We’re already in discussion internally about, how do we keep people motivated when people’s offices reopen? It’s going to be harder then to find volunteers to be in East New York in the middle of the day,” says Bagley. “As people have more demands put back on their time, we’re already talking about, how do we still encourage people to still prioritize service?”

Surge in new helpers, new needs

When the pandemic first hit the city this spring, NYC Service activated its Volunteer Coordination Task Force, a partnership with New York Cares, the city’s Office of Emergency Management and other stakeholders. The task force was established after Hurricane Sandy in order to “centralize and coordinate volunteer efforts,” in times of disaster and connect nonprofits in need with people looking to serve, according to NYC Service Spokeswoman Steph Halpin.

While the task force has been activated briefly during snowstorms over the last few years, this is the first time since its formation that it’s been “active in an emergency response of this magnitude and length of time,” Halpin says.

“It’s unique because the Volunteer Coordination Task Force was theorized and developed based on an environmental disaster, and not a health crisis,” she adds.

Organizations in need of volunteers can connect with the task force through NYC Service’s website, where would-be volunteers can also browse service opportunities. So far, there hasn’t been a shortage of help: Open volunteer slots have filled quickly, both there and at other volunteer coordination groups, which have seen a similar uptick in interest from New Yorkers with time on their hands because of the quarantine.

“There are people who suddenly find themselves at loose ends because they’re looking for things to do,” says Zelda Warner, a board member for the Volunteer Referral Center, where she interviews potential volunteers and helps connect them with opportunities.

VolunteerMatch, a national organization that also recruits and pairs volunteers with nonprofits, says the number of people in New York City alone using the service to volunteer doubled between March and May, according to spokeswoman Darcy Hughes.

“The number of nonprofits in need in New York increased significantly as well,” she told City Limits in an email.

Industry advocates say that across the board, they’ve seen the highest need for help in programs that address food insecurity, such as meal delivery and food pantry programs, which are largely served by volunteers even during non-pandemic times. Bagley says New York Cares is now working with 40 anti-hunger nonprofits that it wasn’t in touch with before the crisis. A year ago, just 35 percent of the work New York Cares’ volunteers did was in hunger programs, compared to about 80 percent now.

“I think there’s a huge organizational question about, can we maintain that scale? Just as a staff, we have to resource-up to do this,” he says, but adds that so far, volunteers have been plentiful, even for meal delivery programs in the outer boroughs that can be harder to staff.

“We’re not having trouble getting people to volunteer, which is very very encouraging,” Bagley says.

But there are hurdles in carrying out food-focused volunteer programs during a pandemic, as “hunger relief is one of those areas of volunteering that is harder to make available virtually,” according to Hughes. Still, programs are making it work.

“Many food banks are distributing food via low contact methods like drive-thru distribution where people wear masks and gloves as they load cars with food or even home delivery,” she says. “They also limit the number of volunteers in each room when filling boxes.”

Risks, challenges and missing ‘boots on the ground’

Other volunteer work has been similarly rearranged to comply with social distancing guidelines: Warner, of the Volunteer Referral Center, says they have volunteers doing work from home such as grant writing, sending cards or making phone calls to residents in long-term care facilities or hospitals, and even recording videos of themselves reading children’s books for child literacy programs.

“Everybody is focused on what can be done remotely,” she says.

That remote work has been particularly important for older adult workers, who make up an integral part of the city’s volunteer sector but are also at higher risk for COVID-19 complications. New Yorkers over the age of 60 account for approximately a third of the city’s more than 600,000 volunteers, according to a 2018 NYC Service report.

“Our older adult volunteers are this untapped treasure,” for the skills and life experience they bring to the table, says Jeffrey Maclin of the Community Service Society (a City Limits funder), which runs the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP) through which 2,300 volunteers between 55 and 100 years old perform a diverse range of service work at 230 organizations across the city, what CSS says accounts for $7.5 million in unpaid labor.

Since the pandemic hit, some of that work has been halted or its hours reduced. But many RSVP’s older volunteers are still finding ways to continue: One program, in which volunteers offer financial coaching to clients at community organizations, has seen about a quarter of its staffers shift to doing that work online instead. Another that pairs older adults to act as mentors for teenagers has continued to operate, with volunteers connecting to their mentees through Zoom, phone calls or FaceTime.

CSS says it’s continuing to expand its remote volunteer opportunities, and hopes to be able to recruit and train more volunteers online, as some programs require as much as 40 hours of training. But the loss of in-person contact is “weighing heavy,” on some of RSVP’s volunteers, according to Tami DiCostanzo, a project director for the program.

“There’s study after study about the health benefits of volunteering, both physical health and mental health,” she says, saying one volunteer told her: “This virtual stuff was for the birds.”

“It was nice to send an emoji here and there, but she really wanted to be boots-on-the-ground again,” DiCostanzo says.

Some older volunteers have continued to do some form of in-person work, doing things like sorting and delivering PPE or helping with meal programs. While most programs advise volunteers to comply with CDC and other best practices for safely volunteering, it’s really up to individuals the level of risk they’re willing to take.

At the start of the pandemic, NYC Service was advising New Yorkers over the age of 55 to stick to remote-only volunteer work, but just this week adjusted that age recommendation to those 65 and up.

Maintaining momentum

Despite the surge in new volunteers during the crisis so far, experts say they are planning ahead to ensure that level of interest and support continues even as many facets of city life begin to reopen.

“Volunteer fatigue is a reality in this sector. There are so many people who want to be extremely involved all the time, and it weighs on you, especially as other events in the world are occurring,” says Halpin.

She says they also expect to see another wave of new volunteers, as teachers or students who have summers off look for ways to meaningfully spend their time. The city also recently doled out funding of up to $10,000 to 20 community-based organizations to support those groups’ volunteer efforts, and will be deploying its AmeriCorps volunteers this summer in COVID-response work, Halpin adds.

“We do anticipate, hopefully, both the need for volunteers as well as the volunteers available to subside together,” she says.

Herrera, who has been doing volunteer phone-banking since April with New York Cares, just started a new job — but she plans to continue the work, even if it’s just on Saturdays for now.

She also hopes to start volunteering in person soon, perhaps at a food bank, but is trying to determine the safest and best time to do so.

“I’m looking forward to still trying to participate,” she says.