Volunteering: That resolution you’re ready to tackle


Whether it be at a park, a food shelter or a book club, volunteering consistently proves to be a great way for people of all ages to make friends, combat loneliness, and find extra meaning in their lives.

There are several volunteering opportunities for anyone seeking them, all in our own backyard. Especially if that backyard just happens to be Van Cortlandt Park.

“We’ve been doing volunteer programs for years now,” said Christina Taylor, deputy director of the Van Cortlandt Park Alliance. “But we have definitely, over the last few years, started these ongoing crews for volunteers which are really nice because we have a lot of regulars who come out. And the volunteers get to know each other and get to learn a little more about what they’re doing and the importance of what they’re doing.”

The alliance attracts some 2,000 volunteers each year, with many focusing a lot on forest and trail restoration. They maintain the natural area of the city’s third-largest park by removing non-native invasive plants. They maintain trails by clearing drainage ditches or putting up new boardwalk.

Any given project could have five volunteers to 30, Taylor said, depending on what it is.

“I think a lot of our volunteers (make friends) because you’re out there in the park and doing work for hours at a time,” she said.

“Talking to whoever’s volunteering next to you and getting to know them better is a great way to make the time pass.”

Projects typically last about three hours, Taylor added. The main qualification for volunteers is to be in relatively decent shape, with the ability to walk on uneven surfaces and pick up and use tools.

For those with limited abilities? The garden, Taylor said, is a great option.

Chip Wilcox was born and raised just a few blocks away from the park.

“I’ve gone there my whole life,” the 22-year-old said. “I was looking for kind of something to start filling some extra time I had, and I got really involved with the park.”

One of Wilcox’s favorite events is during the summer when they remove water chestnut, an invasive species that grows at the bottom of the lake.

“During the hot days of the summer, you get to wear waders and go in the water, which cools you off,” he said. “It’s got a really communal spirit because everybody’s out there chit-chatting with each other as you’re pulling this stuff in. So there have been some really nice days this past summer, and I’m looking forward to getting to do that again this year.”

And when he’s not splashing through Van Cortlandt Lake, Wilcox is ready to take the next step in his volunteer efforts after getting certified by the city parks department to become a street tree “care captain.”’ Here, he teaches neighbors how to care for their local tree pits.

Wilcox wanted to bring his work closer to home, so he started his own group in his neighborhood that cares for tree pits through the city’s Super Steward program, which includes care captains like him.

Volunteering is a great way to make friends, and Alexandra Nyashina should know — she’s the volunteer services director at The Riverdale Y.

Last year, the Arlington Avenue facility welcomed 280 volunteers donating a combined 12,000 hours of work, all while distributing 65 tons of food.

“When a group of people who don’t know each other come together with a singular purpose, that bond, that foundation right there, really allows for conversation,” Nyashina said. “And especially when people have the same values and they’re all working toward the same values, it’s a lot easier to make friends that way. And people come from all walks of life, all genders, all backgrounds, all different religions, all ages — and people find connections.”

Volunteering at The Y can include serving food to older adults, gardening, and supporting food shelters and Sunday markets. There are both committed roles and drop-in opportunities.

And there’s also a book club, like one Adele Schwartz leads. And they just read their 100th book.

“I like the giving back element of it very much,” Schwartz said. “I like volunteering just because it makes me feel useful. And if I have a skill or have a talent for something or knowledge of something, I don’t want to sit with it that I stop working and let it rot. I might as well use it.

“There’s something about that I think I like a lot.”

Abby Turner says she discovered that sense of neighborly love when she started volunteering at the Friendly Fridge Foundation, a fridge that provides immediate and no-questions-asked food for anyone in need near Van Cortlandt Park.

“I feel much more part of the community now,” she said. “Before I basically would do what I do at home, and then go out — not so much in this neighborhood — to do other things. And now, of course, I know all the people that volunteer the same day I do, plus a lot of people who come to the fridge.

“So, when I walk on the street, sometimes I see people, ‘Oh, I know them from the fridge.’”

Taylor praised all of the volunteers who come out to maintain some of the park’s more than 1,100 acres. A lot of what the community appreciates in the park, she added, is thanks to volunteers.

“Come give it a shot,” Taylor said. “You never know, you might really like it. And if you don’t — and if you don’t come back — we won’t be offended. You never know with these things if you’re going to like it until you try it.”

Volunteer opportunities Van Cortlandt Park Alliance Forest and trail restoration Invasive plant removal Community volunteering Park maintenance Riverdale Y volunteer services Food distribution programs Friendly Fridge Foundation Neighborhood volunteering Community bonding Environmental conservation Community engagement Local initiatives Making friends through volunteering Social impact of volunteering Garden maintenance Street tree care Super Steward program Volunteer appreciation