Giving Back What Volunteering Taught Me About Friendship

by Kara Cutruzzula | May 16, 2018

What holds people back from volunteering? Doubt that an hour of your time could make a difference? (Guess what? It can.)

Anne Roderique-Jones didn’t know what to expect before signing up for her initial volunteer stint. This is her story as she told it to Kara Cutruzzula.

I was feeling a little bit lost when I initially moved to New York City in 2007. This new place was so exciting, but at the same time I found myself grasping for something to help anchor me amid the unfamiliar chaos.

I had grown up in the little bubble of Springfield, MO, in the Ozarks. Think Footloose: no drinking, no dancing, no fun. Suddenly I was in New York, the polar opposite of my small hometown. I’d landed a staff job at The Knot, a bridal magazine located in a revamped warehouse building in SoHo. It was my first experience working in editorial; we went from 9 a.m. — rarely leaving our desks for lunch — until late at night. I was absolutely swamped, and I loved it.

Until that point, I had a narrow view of volunteering. It meant joining a civic group, I’d always thought. Those sorts of organizations do many good things, but they just didn’t appeal to me. I saw them as too tied to social obligations, and not offering enough contact with the people you're hoping to help.

Not until I discovered an organization that delivered fresh, healthy meals to people who are too sick to cook for themselves did I find my own way into volunteering — and a path toward a more grounded life in New York.

It was a few months after I’d landed in New York when I began pitching in at a charity called God’s Love We Deliver. A minister gave the organization its name — he said that along with dispersing meals, God’s Love We Deliver’s volunteers were "delivering God’s love” — but the cause is actually not religious. Its mission spoke to things I cared about: Helping people who are going through unbelievable challenges, many of whom have felt ostracized, and meeting with them face-to-face.

My volunteering took place over my lunch break on Fridays. The experience was drastically different from the high-stress intensity of the magazine. I thrived off that environment most of the time. But now I had this reason to step away from the pressure and my sad desk lunch once a week, wander outside, and get to know the city and those living in it. Those Friday appointments soon became a highlight of my week. They’re how I met Peter and Helen, two New Yorkers who changed my life forever.

My volunteering took place over my lunch break on Fridays.
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Peter, West Village

Part of what drew me to New York was this vision I had of its bygone glitz: Studio 54, the seediness of Times Square. Many of the hotbeds of that era — which attracted dreamers, writers and artists — have faded away. But the spirit of 1970s New York lives on in folks like Peter, whom I met through volunteering.

Peter has lived in the West Village since the ’70s. It took us a few weekly visits to warm up to one another. There was the obvious age gap — Peter was in his late 50s — and I could sense his trepidations about my visits early on.

But we uncovered common bonds, such as a mutual love of animals. Peter had a dog, and in time he trusted me to walk the dog when he wasn’t feeling well. We both loved film. Winter’s Bone, which includes scenes filmed in my hometown, was a mutual favorite. Son to Italian immigrants, Peter grew up in New York, so he was fascinated by this place in the Ozarks that was so unlike his own community. We had led such different lives, which over time made us even more interested in one another’s experiences. He shared so many colorful stories about his nights out at Studio 54 and other legendary hotspots. Through him, I was able to learn about New York in ways I never would have from my young co-workers at the magazine.

Our weekly lunch dates grew into a lasting friendship that continues to this day.

Helen, SoHo

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.

I truly appreciated the advice from someone who had such incredible life experience.
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Where to volunteer your time

If interested in switching up the sad desk lunch routine, consider the following volunteer organizations that are making a big difference in communities around the county.

God’s Love We Deliver

Serving people with serious illnesses in the New York area for decades, God’s Love We Deliver’s engine runs on its volunteers — they cooked and delivered their 20 millionth meal in 2017.

Chicago Cares

Search through 200 projects open to the public every month and choose which organization to serve with — or which issue you’d like to address.

New York Cares

Work in a neglected community garden, tutor curious kids or make a difference by assisting with the range of opportunities addressing education, environmental issues and poverty.

Habitat for Humanity

Find your local Habitat and help families and individuals literally rebuild their lives.

GOOD+ Foundation

Help break the cycle of family poverty by giving money, goods or your time to people in need in New York and Los Angeles.

Meals on Wheels

Volunteer with this national origination that drops off lunches for senior citizens — and maybe make a new friend.

Kara Cutruzzula

has vowed to check out volunteering after covering this piece. Kara’s writing has appeared in Newsweek, The Daily Beast and Vulture.