Well into her 90s when we met, Helen lived in a spacious SoHo high-rise apartment with beautiful views of the city. The space was a museum to nine decades of living with photos, furniture and memorabilia everywhere. It was the quintessential grandmother's house, save for the uber-chic downtown setting.
Helen favored straight-up answers and never held anything back, including unsolicited advice. On my visits, Helen invited me right in and promptly launched into stories about growing up as a Jew in New York City and living near Coney Island, home to a beach and an iconic amusement park.
Those afternoons were an education. Coming from a town of Southern Baptists, I had to be schooled on Judaism and its finer cultural points, such as gefilte fish. She called herself the Jewish grandmother I never had, and repeatedly tried to gift me things from her collectible-packed apartment. And I never minded her frank, time-earned guidance (my own grandmother, a very Southern lady, wasn’t nearly as direct). As someone newly married and just starting my career, I truly appreciated the advice from someone who had such incredible life experience.
Helen’s passing was a hard loss, not just for me but for the entire team at God’s Love We Deliver. She lived close to the office and was beloved by all who were lucky enough to meet her. Spending time with Helen provided such a sense of comfort for me. I miss her.
Looking back, I realize the anchor I was reaching for in this new and unknown place was friendship. That’s exactly what I found as a volunteer. And having a 95-year-old adopted Jewish grandma and a middle-aged man to count as among your closest friends is about as New York as it gets.
I can also say that volunteering improved my interview skills as a journalist. I quickly learned how to talk to strangers and people different from me. I learned that more hands-on volunteering proved ideal for my temperament (read: nosy and curious), and it took me inside some grand rent-controlled apartments.
But I’ve come to see an even bigger theme in my experience as a volunteer: I was the one who was supposedly doing something helpful for the people I was working with, but they did so much more for me.