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NYC volunteers to know: Men and teen boys giving back to our city

Give thanks for all the guys who give of themselves.

Nationally, 28.8% of women -- but only 22.5% of men -- volunteer, according to the Corporation for National & Community Service.

Men tend not to have as many social connections as women, and people are most likely to volunteer “because they’re part of a social network and someone asked them to,” observed Robert S. Ogilvie, author of “Voluntarism, Community Life, and the American Ethic.”

But studies show that volunteering -- purpose-driven socializing -- is associated with a cascade of “positive consequences,” from increased feelings of well-being to an improvement in physical health. Volunteering is “not just a great change of pace,” but a great way to build new relationships and fortify existing ones in deep and meaningful ways, said super volunteer AJ Reisman.

Here are some New York guys lighting candles instead of cursing the darkness.

Dwight Williams, middle school math teacher from Crown Heights

Photo Credit: Dwight Williams

"Everything I do is connected to the types of things I wish I had" as a youngster, said Dwight Williams, 31, who grew up in Trinidad without a lot of money and didn't have a relationship with his father until his late teens.

A first-generation college student, Williams has helped low-income high schoolers prepare for the SATs and taught them how to apply for financial aid. He's labored in food banks and community gardens, and now serves on the "junior" board for New York Cares and on the board of another nonprofit that prepares low-income urban youth for college.

One Sunday a month, the middle school math teacher crams in cardio while teaching basketball to special-needs children at PS 15 in Red Hook for Kids Enjoy Exercise Now (KEEN).

It's all to further Williams' personal mission: to groom a new generation of principled leaders through "the best possible educational opportunities, mentoring support, coaching and connections needed for transformational change and success."

Volunteering is a direct, powerful way to create the world you want to live in, he said. "You contribute in the ways you want your community to develop: It's a grassroots way to shape your community."

And he learns teaching tricks on the court that prove helpful in his classroom: "When you give everyone a chance to feel successful, you get better attention and engagement."

Aaron Wong, a high school student from Forest Hills

Photo Credit: Aaron Wong

Volunteering "is a part of my social life," said Aaron Wong, 17, a "lead rescuer" for Rescuing Leftover Cuisine who also leads a group of 50 volunteers for the charity at Hunter College High School.

It's also an education: "I had no idea how much food was thrown out" prior to retrieving leftover food from delicatessens, cafes and restaurants and shuttling it to food pantries, missions and homeless shelters. Nor about the diversity of "food insecure" residents (more than 16 percent of all New Yorkers, according to the Food Bank for New York City). "I served in the cafeteria of the NYC Rescue Mission, and while some people need a lot of help, others come in wearing suits. Food insecurity isn't limited to the homeless: They're the people we see every day."

About 70 percent of Rescuing Leftover Cuisine's volunteers are female. "Guys grow up with the idea that you have to be stern and uncaring," but working with other like-minded do-gooders is enormously gratifying, Wong said.

Rescuing Leftover Cuisine's web app makes volunteering uber easy and convenient, allowing volunteers to sign up for stints as short as 30 minutes. Yet the organization still hungers for bodies: "We have a lot of restaurants on hold right now just because we don't have enough volunteers," Wong said.

Steven De La Cruz, a high school student from Highbridge

Pitbulls and teenage boys have a lot in
Photo Credit: Stephen Aluisa / Stefstop Photo

Pitbulls and teenage boys have a lot in common, observed Steven De La Cruz, a 16-year-old senior at Mott Hall High School: "People think they're dangerous animals, but most are really kind and loving. Dogs and humans are alike: We all just want love."

Four days a week, De La Cruz wakes before dawn and takes three different buses to New Beginning Animal Rescue, the only no-kill shelter in the Bronx, to walk and play with abandoned and rescued dogs, mostly pit bulls. "They're not aggressive to humans, but I'm not going to risk them fighting each other," so he tends to each one individually. Some animals are boarded because of landlord rules, but others have been dumped or heartlessly tortured. "It's a hard world out there," De La Cruz said somberly.

De La Cruz hopes to become a veterinarian, but now settles for playing with the dogs he loves, and evangelizing on their behalf. "We need more volunteers! Some of the dogs get left out" of walks due to a shortage of walkers, he said. "The Bronx is a good place, but we need more people to make it better."

Khadim Diop, a college student from Harlem

Photo Credit: Sharai Y. Isler

"Service" is an honor for Khadim Diop, 19, who teaches leadership and theater skills to children at the Impact Repertory Theatre.

"It's a responsibility of Impact members to eventually take on workshops: That's what keeps the organization alive!" The workshops -- "a safe space to express yourself without fear of judgment" -- teach insight, empathy, imagination, problem-solving, leadership, conflict resolution and career planning.

In the workshops, kids identify themes of frustration -- such as disparate funding for public schools, bullying and how kids with disabilities get labeled and treated -- and then they brainstorm how to fix the problems. "I'm dyslexic," said Diop, who was never identified as such until he went to Impact as an adolescent to audition and a staff member suggested that he get tested for the learning disability. The diagnosis changed his life, allowing educators, finally, to accommodate him in the ways he needed so he could succeed in school. Before that, "I thought I was just dumb," he said.

A film studies major in his second year at City College, Diop is happy to help others as he was helped: "These children pick up where we leave off. It will take all our minds together to solve all the problems that need to be solved."

AJ Reisman, portfolio manager from the Upper East Side

NYC's rich soup of entertainment and eating options
Photo Credit: AJ Reisman

NYC's rich soup of entertainment and eating options "goes for volunteering as well: There are activities to pique anyone's interest," observed AJ Reisman, 29, who was a "Big Brother" to a boy through the Jewish Board of Family and Children's Services for five years until the boy and his mom left the city last year. Reisman is a junior board member and event coordinator for the organization, and also the treasurer for his employer's giving and volunteering committee. And he coaches soccer every Saturday for South Bronx United.

In the Jewish tradition, "tzedakah," or charitable giving, is a moral obligation, Reisman explained. "I live on the Upper East Side. You walk just a few blocks north and there's a big contrast. . . . It's kind of shocking" to see such vast disparities of wealth. Raised with advantages, he feels a responsibility to help everyone have a crack at "the American ideal -- that everyone has the opportunity to climb the ladder of success. Recently, that path has become more challenging. Anything I can do to mitigate that, I'll do."


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