April is volunteer appreciation month, but as IRC's Adult Education Supervisor in Elizabeth recently remarked about IRC's dedicated volunteers: “I hope they feel appreciated every day, and not just today.”
In the last 12 months, volunteers and interns with IRC in New York and New Jersey donated over 34,000 hours to support IRC programs for refugees asylees, asylum-seekers, and immigrant communities. IRC volunteers and interns are the lifeblood of IRC client services like youth tutoring, housing searches, job readiness preparation and cultural orientation. Every program IRC offers is strengthened by engaged, informed and energetic volunteers and interns. They are people like Cecelia, who has volunteered with the IRC in New York for over four years and tutored some 200 students.
While Cecelia is in good company with other long-term IRC NY & NJ volunteers, over 100 volunteers became involved for the first time in this past year. The COVID-19 pandemic deeply shook New York and New Jersey, as all of us feel the heavy impacts and losses from March of last year through today. Even with the uncertainty and many changes due to COVID-19, dozens of volunteers reached out, asking: How can I help? What can I do? Despite the devastation and challenges of this past year, volunteerism rose as people sought to support the most vulnerable in our communities, including IRC's clients.
The pandemic also made IRC volunteering remote, giving people the chance to help from the convenience of home. For the first time, the IRC in NY & NJ has a volunteer base with global reach. Over the past 12 months, the IRC NY & NJ had volunteers and interns based in 23 states and five countries. Some of these people are residents who left the area like Carl, a volunteer ESL teacher for the IRC in New Jersey. Carl, who has been volunteering from an apartment in Florida, reflected, “One of the highlights during the pandemic has been hearing that cling when the students come on Zoom, and then we laugh, we learn and repeat over and over in our lessons together.”
Others are New York-area students who returned home. Shambaleed is a student at Jon Jay College of Criminal Justice who returned to Pakistan during the pandemic. “I was concerned that being far away might make it difficult for me to connect with my supervisor, clients, and fellow interns, but working virtually at the IRC has been a great experience,” Shambaleed said. “Client meetings, supervisor check-ins and intern huddles are all online. Everything is always manageable, even from a different time zone.”
Volunteers make a difference for clients seeking to rebuild their lives here in the US. Every new skill, vocabularly word, job interview, apartment secured, or immigration paperwork filed means a step forward in their lives here in New York and New Jersey. With the many challenges COVID-19 has brought - including adjusting to virtual service, building digital literacy skills, and launching emergency programs for food insecurity and rental assistance - volunteers and interns have supported staff as we all stretch our skills, time and effort to keep clients safe, connected, and progressing.