It's easy to know what you believe and to stand firm in those guiding principles when life goes smoothly. But like so many New Yorkers, so many Americans, the events of the last six months have shaken me. In fact, I struggled to hold onto some of my own core beliefs as we challenged our community to "Turn Belief into Action" this summer.
I believe in equal access to education for all Americans. I believe no one should have to worry about feeding their children. I believe that race or immigration status shouldn't determine how people are treated by their neighbors, let alone law enforcement. But amidst a global pandemic and an unprecedented outcry for racial justice, my work for New York Cares felt, at times, like a mere drop in the bucket.
As a relatively recent New York transplant, I never would have seen the full scale of human suffering and human kindness without my work for New York Cares. Through the eyes of our volunteers and nonprofit partners, I saw the extremes of poverty, homelessness, food insecurity, and racism experienced by so many New Yorkers. Before COVID-19, rampant inequity in our city already challenged my beliefs about NYC. The place I'd fantasized about was a city of dreams, yes. But it was also a city of broken dreams and denied opportunities.
Even when it felt safe to wander the city freely, I mostly absorbed the suffering of my fellow New Yorkers from a distance. Safely behind my desk, it was easy to believe that our volunteers and community partners could handle the hard stuff.
And then everything changed. I'm now near the end of my sixth month working from home. I've experienced the silence of a city in mourning, punctuated by the sound of sirens. Even now, as businesses cautiously reopen, there's a sense of uncertainty that permeates daily life in my Brooklyn neighborhood.
Throughout the pandemic, I thought my connection to our volunteers and the people we serve might grow weaker, more distant. But fortunately, the opposite is true. I've been heartened. I've been inspired. I've felt closer to the heart of our work than I did when I was physically in the office.
Most importantly, I've had other beliefs emerge just as powerful as the ones shaken by the pandemic. Belief in the power of simple human kindness. In our city's resilience. Faith in the innovation, creativity, and grit that have always defined New Yorkers.
When I check my work email or scroll tagged posts on our social media platforms, I see faces. Faces of the staff and volunteers who've served every day for months, masks on, ready. Faces of every shade. People of every age, race, gender identity, nationality, and profession. Retired teachers. Restaurant employees. Veterans. Parents. Teenagers. Immigrants. Well-known actors working side by side with college students and pastors and rabbis. People taking their personal beliefs and turning them into concrete actions in the service of others.
I've not only seen their faces, I've heard their stories:
"I spoke with a gentleman who had no local family or friends, and he was incredibly lonely. He was physically okay, had enough food but just wanted to speak with someone."
"Honestly, I live nearby and wanted something to do. I wanted a reason to get up and go somewhere each day."
"At the start of the pandemic, many of our seniors expected [meal] service to be forgone, so it is astonishing what we have been able to accomplish since mid-March to initiate meal delivery service. Yesterday, for example, it was pouring rain, and there were still enough volunteers there to lend a hand."
Every volunteer I've heard from over the last few months could have chosen to stay home. But they didn't. They showed up by the thousands. Those unable to volunteer in-person participated in virtual projects. They showed the best side of our city again and again, from Corona, Queens, to the South Bronx, to Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, and beyond.
Their beliefs served as a compass, turning the helplessness and cynicism so many of us felt into action. Over five million meals served. Thousands of calls made to support homebound seniors and public school students. Thousands of bags of food delivered.
This is New York City. This is what it means to be a volunteer, to be a New Yorker.
I hope this is what I remember most clearly about 2020: the power of ordinary people believing, unwaveringly, that everyone can make a difference.