My life as a volunteer.

When I first moved to NYC, I was so defeated.  I spent all my little money incredibly fast and nobody would hire me.  I was crashing with a friend from boarding school until I found a job, but the thing they don’t tell you about moving to a big city with your college degree in tow is some degrees are good for landing a job immediately (even entry level is still a paycheck), some degrees are good for internships while you wait tables to pay the bills, and some degrees are only good for sending you back to school for your masters where hopefully you will also gain some kind of experience in your field.  There’s nothing you can do in your field with an anthropology degree or an economics degree unless you have already gained some magically elusive experience in that field already.  

I worked my way through college, but I worked retail because the schedule was flexible and it paid a lot (retail management is a really nice paycheck, especially in a lucrative chain).  You can’t get a retail management job in NYC unless you have “New York Experience” which I most certainly didn’t have coming up here from South Carolina.  I took a job as a cashier in a Bed Bath & Beyond with extremely high turnover because I would be promoted faster and catch some “New York Experience” as a manager.  Until I got that experience, I was trying to survive in NYC making $9 an hour at a part-time job.  When I did find an apartment, it was an overpriced, newly (but shoddily) renovated building way out in Bushwick where the first floor residents were selling crack all day.  I was pretty much living on Top Ramen and lunchmeat, begging for extra shifts at work, and trying to keep it together.

But I had a roof.  And I had a job.  And I was paying my bills.  And I could eat.  All around the city you see people every day who don’t have that, so I wanted to put it all back into perspective for my own sense of wholeness and to remind myself that I did have a lot to be thankful for regardless of my struggle.  So I went to volunteer at a homeless shelter.  

I don’t talk about volunteering a lot, but when I do, I’m never shy about what I feel is the selfish aspect of it.  The general feeling toward people who give up their time for strangers is that it’s a selfless act of extremely giving people who want to make the world a better place, and that’s true and warm and fuzzy and all that, but for me (and most of the volunteers I know) you do actually feel better.  It’s not just that you are helping another person, because I would hope that everyone feels a little bounce in their step if they made someone else’s day easier, but at a place like a homeless shelter, you’re also thankful that it’s not you who needs the help.  I wanted to stop feeling sorry for myself living above a crack house and eating ramen every night, so I went to volunteer with homeless people to help make their lives easier.  While I was there, one of the administrators told me I might be interested in a battered women’s shelter organized by a Catholic church that was looking for more volunteers to help some of the women with job interview skills.

My first day there, I barely met any of the women.  They didn’t just need volunteers to help the ladies get back on their feet.  They needed extra people for everything from meal prep to laundry and I spent most of my first shifts on housekeeping duties, but what I noticed most were the kids of these women.  The goal of the program was to not only provide a safe space for victims (and their children if they had them) but to also get them back on their feet as quickly as possible.  That means helping them find jobs and housing away from the abusive situations where they’d previously been living.  

Everything was focused on the women, but there was no nursery.  There was no babysitting system in place for the women who had job interviews or appointments with the housing authority.  The kids were just as stressed out as their moms and there was nothing really there to alleviate that stress.  I was talking about it with another volunteer and I suggested we start a little babysitting club between the two of us, nothing official, just a little signup sheet on the front messageboard with the times we were there and off our regular duties so the moms wouldn’t have to depend on each other for looking after their kids all the time.  We got other volunteers in on our club and then there was always someone to watch the kids.

I did get promoted at Bed Bath & Beyond to full time, then management, and I was also working another part-time job, so I wasn’t around to volunteer as much as I wanted to be.  Still, I had planted that little seed and I kept babysitting off and on for the next few years until I got hired by and then fired from Uniqlo and found myself jobless and pounding the pavement again looking for work.  This time, I didn’t go back to work.  I’d started making decent money writing and arranging marching band music (which I’d been doing since junior high), and even though it wasn’t quite enough to cover my bills, I could make ends meet with odd jobs like catering and tutoring.  I wrote my music, and I went to volunteer more.  

By this time, I’d seen a lot of women & children come and go, and while I babysat, I usually tried to find out what the kids were up to in school so I could help them with their homework or give them little assignments.  Some of the kids would come back to see me even after mom had moved out because it’s not the best neighborhood and they felt safe there.  Plus, we had snacks and I’d help them with their homework.  Our little babysitting sign-up sheet slowly turned into an afterschool program that I was responsible for and I had to round up volunteers and make schedules for us so we weren’t overstaffed on some afternoons and then no coverage on others.  In the actual shelter, the number of kids staying with us at any one time was never more than 11 or 12, but we’d have like 30 or 40 of them dropping in after school, and sometimes during the summer we’d have a full house all day long while the parents were working.  We eventually got funding from the city with regular visits and guidelines and I have no experience in community building or youth organizations, but I saw a need, and I was just trying to fill it.  And, selfishly, it felt good.  

I don’t know if I’ll ever have kids.  I’m a difficult person to be in a relationship with and I will probably never make enough money to adopt as a single parent, but I’ve had hundreds of kids over the past eight years, and some of them become like family.  

There was a woman who came to us in my earliest days who was running from her boyfriend / pimp.  Her little boy had seen drug use, men coming in and out, and a shooting, but he was so smart and I focused so much energy to get that kid out of that neighborhood.  When he writes me emails now, they come from a Penn State address because he’s in his second year there.  He’s the reason we have a slush fund to pay for AP exams and college application fees.  

I got a call from the center in the middle of the night a few years ago because there was a girl asking for me and she didn’t want to talk to anyone else.  She and her mom had had a very brief stay with us a couple of years earlier, and  I was the only name she could remember because I was the loud gay Black man in this Catholic environment.  She ran to the shelter when her mom’s new boyfriend raped her since that was one of the few places she’d ever felt safe.  She’ll be a high school senior this year and she wants to be a nurse, and even though there was nothing we could’ve done to prevent that assault, it was my first time coming face to face with a rape victim and I thought about the other girls that we could possibly help if they had more information.  Those were the first seeds of our classes on consent and assault that we do twice a year now.  

We had an obviously gay boy for awhile who was best friends with all the girls and bullied by the other boys because he liked dolls and glitter.  There’s a fine line you have to walk as a gay mentor because so much of the world still sees you as a pervert or a child molester.  You go through so many risk management scenarios in your head every day especially when one of your kids is a little gay boy who reminds you of yourself.  You don’t want to be blamed for “turning him gay” but you also remember what it would have meant to you when you were younger if you’d had any sort of gay role model to talk to so you don’t want to be too distant.  He and his mom left before I really bonded with him there, but he still emails me.  He likes to write science fiction and he sends me his stories to critique.  I hate sci-fi with a passion but you know, just trynna foster that creative spark in another little nerdy gay kid and at least give him feedback from a storytelling perspective.  After the shooting at Pulse last year, I wanted to give a Sunday School lesson on love and tolerance, and I remembered the bullies picking on him within the supposedly loving walls of a Catholic Church.  I’ve been an atheist for about fifteen years now, but I grew up steeped in the Word and I wanted to teach these kids that being a Christian is about loving your neighbor, not punishing your neighbor.  

I don’t doubt that I could have volunteered as a laundry helper or dishwasher or administrator with the women’s program indefinitely.  Being a gay atheist really has nothing to do with changing bedsheets so it’s not really an issue.  In the back of mind though I started to realize that as the kids’ program got larger and larger, I wouldn’t be able to be the head of it forever.  A gay atheist as the front of an organization for children at a Catholic Church – it just wasn’t feasible.  I held an easy truce with most of the church leadership for a long time.  I won’t turn the kids into heathens as long as you don’t proselytize to me.  Now my time has run out and they asked me not to come back.  

Earlier this year they replaced me as the overall manager with someone who “had more experience” and was also a Catholic heterosexual, so I knew this was coming already.  I pretty much just refused to think about it because I’ve sort of built my whole life around this now.  At my last two jobs, I structured my schedule in such a way that I could be at the church when I was most needed.  I’ve turned down fairly lucrative positions because I knew they would come with the kind of stress and responsibility that would take me away from what I really found valuable, which was spending that time with my kids.  Writing gives me the extra income I need so that I don’t have to be chained to a desk working 50 hour weeks and I can go spend time with my kids instead.  I didn’t really want to think about what I’d do when they finally gave me the boot.  To be fair, they didn’t throw me out.  They asked that I “take a less active role with the children” and consider focusing my “time on duties that help the program run smoothly.”  Church leadership has changed so much over the past 18 months and I don’t really have the kind of support I used to have.  I made every argument I could about tolerance and fostering a younger generation that was open-minded enough to coexist with anybody but their minds were pretty made up.  

So I’ve been processing.  Trying to figure out what’s next.  I never set out to work with kids and never really had any interest until it happened.  Maybe I should go back to school and get a degree in education.  I don’t really want to volunteer with another church, even one that accepts gays, because I’m still an atheist and I don’t need that possible complication to arise.  I could find another kids’ program to volunteer with – there’s always some organization in need here.  I have options and I’ll decide on the best one, but it’s rough and it feels like a huge loss.  The biggest, most stable part of my life in this city isn’t there anymore.  Now I have to find a new purpose and it’s a little overwhelming.

I’m fine though.  I’m fine now anyway.  I was definitely not fine for most of the week.  I don’t have a future there anymore, but I still feel like I accomplished something and that’s comforting.  You can’t save every kid, but thinking about the ones I did help save gives me comfort.  Thinking about all the kids who’ll be helped by the program I started and nurtured gives me even more.

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