This Thanksgiving, we are grateful for New Yorkers who spend their time putting others before themselves. Oodles of New Yorkers give freely of themselves in infinite ways, but this year’s crop of do-gooders use their own unique skills and credentials to improve — and even save — lives in New York City.
“Skills-based volunteering is a large, growing trend,” said Samantha Warfield, spokeswoman for Corporation for National & Community Service. Retired professionals in particular, she noted, “have a wealth of knowledge they use for a second act.”
Here are four notable New Yorkers who give back in unconventional ways.
Dr. Brian Rosenthal, Upper West Side
“I’m a fairly devout Buddhist and one of the things that allows you to attain enlightenment is generosity,” explained Dr. Brian Rosenthal, 65, a physiatrist who provides free medical care one day a week to singers, dancers and other performers at midtown’s Al Hirschfeld Free Health Clinic, run by The Actors Fund.
The irony? “I have an obligation to give without expectation of a reward, but when I do this I get back 10 times what I give,” he said.
Rosenthal’s greatest pleasure is practicing medicine in ideal conditions most American physicians can’t imagine: His volunteer gig has no requirements to hurry patients along; prescribe unnecessary tests, meds, or procedures; no pressure to upscale “codes” to plump up reimbursements and no insurance overlords or burdensome documentation: “There is no bureaucracy — none!” he exclaims.
Nor do his patients — who are eager to work — beg for disability evaluations or unnecessary narcotics, as many paid physicians complain. His volunteer gig “is a thrill,” said Rosenthal. “I had no idea how much I’d love, not like — love — doing this.”
Rosenthal “is phenomenal” enthused the model/actor/producer Ray Martell Moore, 28.
Moore, who lives in Washington Heights, visited the midtown clinic after injuring his foot. Rosenthal assured him he did not need an x-ray.
(“The only reason to do a test is if it’s going to change your clinical decision,” Rosenthal explains, and the foot would mend with time.) Rosenthal also took Martell off blood pressure meds another physician had prescribed. “He didn’t need the medication and it wasn’t the right medication if he did need medication,” he said.
Rosenthal “definitely changed my perception about doctors (being in) medicine for the money: He shows that he cares,” Moore said.
Doctors such as Rosenthal help NYC remain a lodestar of the arts and theater, Moore observed. “Show people,” (as Rosenthal terms his patients) often have erratic, insufficient incomes, yet are prone to injury as a result of their physical jobs.
They are also likely to lack insurance coverage and live in perpetual insecurity when it comes to their health. “We sacrifice a lot to do what we do, just because we love it: People like Dr. Rosenthal may be outside the arts, but they contribute just as much,” Moore said.
Carey Byrd, Upper East Side
“There is a pleasure you get in helping people,” said Carey Byrd, 73, a retired accountant who for the last five years has been helping poor people become financially stable as a volunteer for the Financial Coaching Corps, run by the Community Service Society.
Debt, he said, “can make people feel ashamed. We try to make them comfortable.
Byrd helps the financially stressed steer clear of “debt consolidators” (“they’re scams! And they don’t do anything you can’t do for yourself!”), find banks and credit unions, negotiate with debtors (“80% of what I do is help people with credit card debt”), and shows them how to create budgets.
Many poor people don’t realize they have established priorities by default that doom them from getting a firm purchase on the financial soil.
“Do you have to go to the bar every week? Do you need a new outfit every week? They say they do it for appearances, but now their fiscal appearance is bothering them,” so Byrd prompts them to question all assumptions and set thoughtful, deliberate priorities and goals.
While Byrd volunteers to keep sharp (“the old ‘use it or lose it'”), he admits to an occasional sense of wonder when he realizes,”‘Wow! That person left with a smile. They know at the end of the tunnel there’s not a train, but a light.”
Byrd is a bit of an altruistic wunderkind: He is volunteer chair of the docent and welcome committees at The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and also did 18-months in the CSS “Record Repair Program,” helping released prisoners. “Many individuals who have been incarcerated find that their mate or someone else has used their personal information to get credit cards,” and run up debt in their name, which can be contested and set right, Byrd said.
Byrd was initially alarmed reviewing the criminal charges in some clients’ pasts, “but I looked beyond it and saw this is just another human being in financial trouble. On top of whatever crime it was that got them into trouble, now they have the stigma of being debt — they’d had their identities stolen! The ones we work with are trying to turn their lives around and most just need a chance,” Byrd said.
Doreen Forni, Willowbrook, Staten Island
Every night right after NYC Animal Care & Control issues the list of dogs and cats to be euthanized the next day, Doreen Forni, 58, hits her computer, amassing pictures, heart-rending volunteer assessments and compelling stories about the dogs facing execution.
She then publishes on urgentpetsondeathrow.org and a Facebook page, “Urgent Part 2 — Urgent Death” Row Dogs (it has more than 111,100 “likes” in hopes of finding them homes.
The work “is heartbreaking. It’s exhausting. It’s discouraging.” But when Forni sees that one of the dogs whas been reunited with its owner, or adopted to a loving home, “all the work and heartache is worth it. I love the happy-ending pictures,” owners send of themselves with pets they have reclaimed or adopted.
“It was my dog (Moe) getting lost,” on the July 4 weekend in 2010 that prompted Forni to become involved in rescue.
A good Samaritan who had seen Forni’s lost dog plea on Craigslist contacted her and said Moe was in the Brooklyn branch of Animal Care & Control , where he had been taken instead of Staten Island, due to the holiday – a place she would never have thought to check.
Wanting to help others as she had been helped, Forni began volunteering with the Staten Island shelter and, eventually, Urgentdeathrowpets.org.
The work of such volunteers is making a difference: In 2013, there was a 30% decline in the number of cats and dogs euthanized from the year before and an 8% increase in combined placements and owner returns, according to Animal Care & Control. But the statistics are still grim, as 1,789 dogs and 3,054 cats were killed last year for lack of a home.
“Oh, God — The cats! Tonight there were 45 cats on the destroy list! If I did the cats, I’d lose my mind,” because there are so many, Forni said.
“I’m good at my job,” said Forni, who works full time as an administrator for a construction company. “I’m a good mom and a good grand mom. But this takes me out of my box. I’m helping someone outside of my own house. It’s serious work and it makes me feel better.”
Melissa Nguyen, Park Slope
Melissa Nguyen, of Brooklyn, volunteers as a team leader for the New York Cares SAT Prep program at Chinatown’s Pace High School, helping narrow the inequality gap in a borough where the gulf between the haves and have-nots yawns like a canyon.
Wealthy, educated parents spend thousands on SAT prep for their kids, but the high school sophomores with whom she works are from low-income, and often, immigrant families, who are desperate for help with English reading comprehension; algebra and geometry problems; and logic.
“These students are all incredibly bright and hardworking and really ambitious. They have goals. They want to go to college and the SAT is one of the baseline hurdles they have to clear to get there,” said Nguyen, who identifies with their struggles:
Her parents, both factory workers, brought her to the U.S. from Vietnam as a baby. “They didn’t have the resources to help me and the people who helped and inspired me the most were teachers,” explained Nguyen, who came to NYC from Utah in 2011 as a member of the Teach for America Corps.
While Nguyen enjoys seeing teens grasp a complicated concept for the first time her greatest gratification sometimes comes in moments of struggle. One immigrant student confided she realized she had been comparing herself to others and that her self-critical habits were not helping her improve. Victory!
“These are people really depending on you every week. You are that person! There’s something really gratifying to know that you are having an impact on their lives!” Nguyen said.
Too, there is happiness in being a contributing member of the greater human family: “In New York, we all get really stuck in our routines and we’re so often unexposed to other perspectives and activities,” Nguyen said. But volunteering, she continued, broadens your vista and gets you out of “your bubble” like nothing else in the world.