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Wonder Woman anniversary: Meet NYC’s real-life heroes who are making a difference

Wonder Woman, who has battled Nazis and terrorists, organized a union and run for president, celebrates her 75th anniversary Friday. She has been rewarded with her image on a postage stamp and her appointment as the United Nations ambassador for women and girls.

New York City has its own wonder women who battle to improve the lot of others and to make our city a fairer, kinder and happier place. They are volunteers who, despite grueling schedules and responsibilities, spend their free time helping others.

While women are more likely than men to volunteer, volunteerism is declining nationwide, with civic engagement in particularly dire straits in NYC. According to a 2014 survey by the Corporation for National and Community Service, only 17.6% of city residents volunteer, placing us at number 49 of the nation’s 51 largest cities in volunteer rates.

Here are some of the wonder women of NYC, who are defying the trends:

Francesca Ely-Spence, 20, Upper West Side

Barnard junior Francesca Ely-Spence wanted a volunteer gig
Photo Credit: Robert Galinsky

Barnard junior Francesca Ely-Spence wanted a volunteer gig that was truly meaningful, "not just calling people for donations."

Through friends, she discovered that Robert Galinsky, the curriculum designer for Literacy for Incarcerated Teens, needed a Jill-of-all-Trades for the charity that provides books and learning resources to young people in jails and residential facilities.

Just like that, the 20-year-old took over management of the online charity auction that raises money for the non-profit.

The sociology major concedes she is learning valuable skills -- how to take initiative and network ("Robert knows everybody"), solve problems ("we auctioned off an engine hoist") and raise money ("so far we've made $16,000!") that will help her own career.

But the real pay-off, she said, is in knowing she is giving kids without the "ton of privilege" she had another chance.

Volunteering, she explained, "is a weird form of self-care. When you're invested in other people's wellbeing, your own emotional and mental health improves."

She loves working at a place that "helps to prevent recidivism," by giving people with lots of time the opportunity to remedy their educational deficits.

Renee Council, 36, Briarwood

Renee Council has a Facebook account,
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Renee Council

Renee Council has a Facebook account, "but it's not active. I wanted to live in real life," as opposed to investing in virtual interactions.

That she does.

Council helped dig out the Rockaways after Superstorm Sandy; she has distributed fresh produce to farmers markets in Washington Heights, painted murals to beautify public schools, and helped adults become computer literate and create resumes. Volunteer work is a great way to hone "different skill sets" and express different parts of yourself, Council said.

For the last two years, Council has led the Queens Mobile Team, a group of volunteers that visits Queens high schools to help families -- many of whom are poor -- decode and complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) so that their kids can unlock crucial loans and grants for college.

"I like helping people and I'm a firm believer in sharing the wealth," said Council, who sees her volunteerism as part of an eternally-renewing cycle of virtue: "Helping others is a part of my family and Black cultural and community heritage."

Plus, "I love my borough! It's so great to be out in the community!"

Barbara Edwards Delsman, 70, Brooklyn Heights

Barbara Edwards Delsman spent 21 years as the
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Barbara Edwards Delsman

Barbara Edwards Delsman spent 21 years as the executive director of The HOPE Program, helping impoverished adults with histories of substance abuse, mental illness, incarceration and low educational attainments become economically independent.

"Many of the people I worked with lost their children to the foster care system," recalled Delsman, noting the parents, too, were often veterans of foster care.

After she retired, "I joined a few boards (Just Leadership USA and Counseling Services of the Eastern District of New York), but what I really wanted to do is roll up my sleeves and work with the children of the adults I worked with" at HOPE, she explained. So she became a CASA-NYC (Court Appointed Special Advocates for Children) volunteer advocate in the foster care system.

Delsman sometimes spends 20 hours a week in "incredibly labor intensive" research -- interviewing lawyers, case-workers, biological and foster parents, therapists, teachers and, of course, the children themselves -- to prepare case reports for family court judges.

"The goal is permanency -- whether that is adoption or reunification with the parents. ... We are very effective because we have much smaller caseloads than the caseworkers and other professionals, and we don't give up."

Her volunteer work is "very fulfilling," Delsman said. "You're making a difference in a child's life."

Mary Wang, 27, Long Island City

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Mary Wang

"I like that I can give a voice to animals, who can't speak, who don't deserve to be in shelters, and who deserve to be loved," said Mary Wang.

Wang has fostered nine cats since June in her one-bedroom apartment and regularly works "adoption events" for Best Friends-New York, a non-profit that pulls animals from the Animal Care & Control to prevent their euthanasia.

Wang takes in unwanted kittens and "gives them the human interaction that gears them up for adoption," paying close attention to how well they play with her four-year-old Papillon, and to their habits and preferences so she can give potential adopters "sneak peeks" of what to expect.

"When you give the cat or dog to their adopter there is a glow from them, and that gives a glow to you," she said.

"I wish more people realized all the good volunteering does for the volunteer," she added. . . . "I hear my friends complain all the time: 'Why didn't my boyfriend call me back? Why can't I find a man? Why aren't I making more money?' To me, those things don't matter: Volunteering gives you a focus on something that is not you. . . . I plan to keep on fostering for as long as I can afford it."

Marilyn Wang, 21, Williamsburg

Marilyn Wang, 21, is a Buffalo State University
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Marilyn Wang

Marilyn Wang, 21, is a Buffalo State University student who spends her weekends, summers and breaks in NYC volunteering to help her hometown via a New York Cares portal that links her up with an endless array of new experiences and people.

"All I have to do is go online, sign up for a project, and show up!" exclaimed Wang, who is delighted with the education she has received playing bingo with senior citizens, gardening in Brownsville, helping teens with their math homework and SAT prep, helping participants in the Special Olympics, and delivering meals to homeless people.

"Helping others is a sensible karmic investment, reasoned Wang. "One day I'll be at that age (i.e. old) and I'd be extremely sad if no one ever visited me."

And in a city like New York, "you never know when you could be homeless."


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