There are moments in the life of every organization that demand its mission meets the moment, and the methods to achieve its goals become more defined. New York Cares is no exception. Our mission, to meet pressing community needs by mobilizing caring New Yorkers in volunteer service, has been honed and sharpened since our founding in 1987.
Longtime Executive Director Gary Bagley, who will be stepping down at the end of the year, reflected on some of those events and how our relationships with community and corporate partners, as well as our thousands-strong volunteer force in the face of disasters like Hurricane Sandy and COVID-19 are continually shaping how we serve New York City communities.
“There are big one-time events that are unforgettable and require big changes in how our organization works,” Gary explained. “One of those is Hurricane Sandy. The city was hit with a disastrous event, and before it, no one could imagine the scale. I was not with the organization during 9/11, but there was a similar reaction. And now the pandemic. The events are so large that they beg a response. During these times, we tend to stretch ourselves and ask, ‘What can I do?’”
For better or worse, volunteer interest after the onset of a disaster tends to follow a familiar arc. In a city well-known for its toughness and its people working through difficult times together, Gary says that volunteers rush the stage after disaster strikes, eager for an opportunity to help. Interest tends to be stable for a few weeks, then drops as situations stabilize.
COVID-19, however, is an outlier because of its ongoing and sometimes quiet disruption and physical, social, and psychological ramifications. “All disasters, in my view, especially natural disasters, hit at our heartstrings around immediate needs: food, shelter, clothing,” he explained. “Though COVID has affected some of us more than others, it has affected all of us.”
The effects of COVID-19 reach far beyond sickness and death. Recent studies in the U.S. show that there has been a dramatic increase in COVID-related anxiety and depression among adults—triggering widespread economic and sociopolitical consequences.
New York Cares has used these challenges to think even more deeply about how to serve communities that tend to take the hardest hits when disaster strikes and how to make that service more accessible and equitable.
“For many of us, there has been an arc of learning,” Gary said. “Volunteerism is a preconceived notion - most folks think of volunteerism as the ‘haves’ helping the ‘have nots.’ But equity is building and supporting a stronger New York City together.”
As New York Cares works more closely with communities like the South Bronx, Central Queens, and East/Central Brooklyn that continue to manage historic inequities and the ongoing duress of COVID-19, we continue to prioritize the approach of listening and learning first to understand how to place and shape the work.
“Some communities have stronger infrastructure. Some communities have stronger bonding and support networks,” Gary explained. “Every major event has forced us to adapt our model of service so it can be accessible to anyone who needs service and anyone who wants to give back.”
With these new models of service in place, we continue to focus beyond immediate needs such as hunger—New York Cares distributed more than 32 million meals in 2020, up 1200 percent from 2019, and 53 million since the onset of COVID-19—our annual Coat Drive to make a lasting community impact. New York Cares, Gary said, is examining the fundamental question of impact. “Instead of saying, ‘we deployed 25,000 volunteers,’ we are asking, ‘what did we get done?’“
While an urgent response to COVID and other disasters is ongoing, there are acute topics that need addressing simultaneously. “As the immediacy of emergencies slow down, we focus on education, workforce development, and isolation,” Gary added. “We all have many basic needs, and while we’re attending to them, we can’t let education, for example, fall behind.”
Over the 17 plus years of Gary’s work with New York Cares, he’s noticed a striking trend, hopefully, one that’s here to stay. “I’ve seen change in how people think about service,” he said. “Each day we can live our values. We can believe in caring for others, no matter what happens.”
You can turn your values into service by becoming a New York Cares volunteer or making a donation to support initiatives like our annual Coat Drive or our year-round program for NYC public school students, Stand with Students.