Volunteering in New York City

April 13, 2020 by

humanitarian worker

The author is in New York City setting up a field hospital for COVID-19 patients with Samaritan’s Purse, a humanitarian aid organization.

I contend that the face of this domestic and international crisis should be neither angry political headlines nor graphs showing exponentially rising unemployment claims. Not even COVID-19 cases and deaths, as heartbreaking as that is. Rather, the face of this global crisis should be the volunteers. These men and women are sacrificing their time and energy in service to their fellow Americans. I have met a few of them here in New York, and I know they are everywhere.

David, a former New York firefighter, who helped dig through the smoking debris of the Twin Towers in 2001, dug out his fellow citizens’ homes after Hurricane Sandy in 2012, has now been volunteering to assemble and prepare the Respiratory Care Center that Samaritan’s Purse erected between 97th and 101st streets. He has donated his time and energy to help build this hospital that will reduce the pressure felt by Mount Sinai, just across the street, and ensure that his city, as he proudly reminds me, will survive and come back stronger.

Whitney lives just across the street from where we are erecting this field hospital, and he has energetically inserted himself into the project, happily scraping mulch into plastic sleds to create a pathway through the mud, tightening lines that secure the tents in place, and carrying out myriad other tasks that, had he and his daughters not performed, may have remained undone.

A guy on roller skates, out for his daily exercise, unstrapped his skates, worked for 6 hours, and then returned the next day to work again. When pressed, he confessed that the pizza donated by a local shop played a large role in his return – which in no way detracts from his contributions on the work site.

humanitarian worker

These stories and those of countless other volunteers over the past week demonstrate enormous sacrifices that each willingly made to ensure that their fellow New Yorkers are cared for. Sacrifice, it was pointed out to me, is not contingent on losing your life or suffering bodily or mental harm. Rather, each day is a unique 24-hour experience that can be used for unselfish or selfish ends.

Easter is a holiday that is by definition a remembrance of the divine sacrifice, and it is only fitting to highlight the sacrifices that are so apparent in this time of crisis. Recognizing the volunteerism and the sacrifice that is inherently bound up within that word is critical: That will be the foundation of our nation’s recovery – both economically and socially – from the scourge ravaging our land.

As we battle through the epidemiological onslaught, it would benefit everyone to heed the daily postings from Dr. Craig Smith. These have become the equivalent of Winston Churchill’s radio speeches during one of Britain’s darkest hours in the early 1940s.

field hospitalPhoto credit: Samaritan's Purse

As hospitals and clinics began receiving the front end of the deluge of cases, Dr. Smith’s first directive to his staff was simple. Absent the hyperbole that clouds the vision of many leaders, yet acknowledging the severity of the developing crisis, Dr. Smith wrote on March 20, “Load the sled, check the traces, feed Balto, and mush on, our cargo must reach Nome. Remember that our families, friends, and neighbors are scared, idle, out of work, and feel impotent …We mush on!”[1]

Dr. Smith’s call to action requires sacrifice, the need for every health care worker and non-medical worker to serve the greater good – in short, volunteerism. Our nation will be saved if we, like the volunteers with whom I worked, subsume our own wishes and safety for the greater communal need. The calendar dates of Easter will pass, but its essence – sacrifice – is a commodity that we can’t afford to run out of if we hope to successfully navigate our way through this pandemic.

[1] Smith, Craig. “Covid – 19 Updates from Dr. Smith” Columbia University Irving Medical Center | Surgery. March 20 2020. Accessed April 3, 2020.


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