As a non-profit social services provider, we are often asked by our public and private funders to track specific metrics such as number of people served, rate of participation, etc., to show the impact that our activities are having on our participants. While these metrics certainly can tell a lot about program effectiveness, they don’t, in fact, they can’t tell the whole story. There are some outcomes that are abstract and more difficult to measure, but just as valuable, nonetheless. Outcomes like happiness, confidence, and even love that speak right to the heart of what it really means to be a community-serving organization. But how do we measure the level of contentment that a senior who lives alone derives from playing bingo at our community center or the level of confidence that a young child in one of our after-school programs gains from trying new things? While we can’t fully measure those outcomes, we can elevate the stories of the people we serve and reflect through their individual and unique experiences the broader impact of all that happens at Jacob A. Riis Neighborhood Settlement.
And so, we invite you to read the story of Mary Kearl and José Roberto Orellana Mendoza:
Mary began volunteering at Riis Settlement in 2010 as a conversation partner for students in our English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) classes and continued until she started graduate school in 2014. In addition to serving as a conversation partner, she also occasionally subbed for our ESOL instructors and volunteered as a citizenship class tutor. Mary met Roberto in the fall of 2010 when he was in his last semester of our ESOL program. They met at the ESOL graduation party where he asked her to dance. Mary declined at first because she wasn’t a confident dancer, but her father, Alan, who had also started volunteering at Riis that same year, encouraged her to take him up on his offer. Roberto told Mary that he was planning on applying to college, so she offered to help him with the application process. The next year he applied to college and the couple had their first date. The rest is history. Two years after their first dance, Mary and Roberto got married on New Year’s Eve 2012. In 2014, Roberto graduated from LaGuardia Community College and in 2015 he graduated from City Tech with a 4-year degree – making him the first in his family to graduate from college. The couple credit Riis’ free ESOL classes for helping pave the way to higher education. They also credit Riis’ immigrant services legal team for helping put Roberto on the path to citizenship.
Today, Mary and Roberto live in California, but they still remain connected to Riis Settlement. Not only do they make personal donations but they also encourage friends and family to do the same. “Though we moved from Queens in 2016, there will always be a special place in our hearts for the great work Riis Settlement does for the community, particularly for the newly arrived. Whenever we celebrate a special occasion, we donate to Riis Settlement because we know first-hand the immediate good and long-term value donations to Riis Settlement will bring to people of all backgrounds”, expressed Mary. Mary’s parents, Alan and Beckie, continue to volunteer at Riis Settlement to this day.
Mary and Roberto’s story is just one of many stories that found their start somewhere within the ether of Riis Settlement: relationships that were formed, connections that were made, ideas that were sparked, and journeys that were embarked upon. Ultimately, those experiences are the true measure and purpose of the work we do. Riis Settlement, in true settlement house fashion, is shaped and sustained by the lives and the stories of the people it serves.
In late April, the US celebrated National Volunteer Week, a week in which volunteers are honored and thanked for the valuable services they provide to communities all across the nation. National Volunteer Week began in 1974 when President Richard Nixon announced Proclamation 4288, an executive order that declared that a week of special ceremonies be held in the month of April in recognition of all those who volunteer and make volunteerism “one of the hallmarks of American life”. The executive order also encouraged Americans to give their time and talent to a worthy cause during this week. In honor of National Volunteer Week, we would like to highlight the hard work of our two NYC Civic Corps volunteer coordinators, Gloria Hughes and Woodlynn Sance, in helping further our mission to build and strengthen the underserved communities in western Queens.
For the past six years, Riis Settlement has been very fortunate to be chosen as one of fifty host sites for the NYC Civic Corps program. The program, which is operated by NYC Service, a division of the Office of the Mayor, places AmeriCorps members in City agencies and non-profit organizations for a ten-month term to help build volunteer capacity and volunteer management systems. The members are given a monthly stipend as well as an education award at the end of their term. The program offers an opportunity for members to gain valuable skills and work experience in the public and private sector and serves as a vehicle for those looking to make a positive impact throughout communities in New York City. To date, Civic Corps members at Riis Settlement have recorded over 14,000 hours of volunteer service – an economic equivalent of over $350,000.00!
We welcomed Gloria and Woodlynn in September and to date they have done a remarkable job recruiting and managing volunteers for all of the agency’s needs. They have helped fill a number of key volunteer positions ranging from kitchen aide in the senior center to mentoring positions at our after-school programs. Before deciding to embark on the adventure of serving as Civic Corps members, Gloria and Woodlynn worked as full-time employees and brought to Riis Settlement valuable experiences from their previous workplaces. Gloria was a library manager at a branch of the New York Public Library in the Bronx and Woodlynn was a licensed sales producer at the Allstate Insurance Company. Gloria and Woodlynn chose Riis Settlement as their host site because they both believe that the mission of Riis Settlement to help strengthen underserved communities embodies their own values and desires to help those in need.
Our volunteer coordinators have seen first-hand the impact that their recruitment efforts have had on the participants we serve. Some time ago they recruited a Mandarin-speaking volunteer who now comes to the senior center weekly and provides our Chinese seniors with vital translation services – helping to make all of the activities we offer more accessible to them. With the volunteer’s help, eleven Chinese seniors felt comfortable enough to enroll in our Senior Planet computer classes. The coordinators also recruited an obstetrician who is now serving as a regular mentor in the Young Men’s Initiative program at our Ravenswood campus – sharing his own life experiences and helping to improve outcomes in education, employment, health and justice for a number of our young men of color. Additionally, they both engage in almost daily direct service at our senior center and Woodlynn is now one of our after-school mentors!
Volunteers make a tremendous difference in the lives of the youth, immigrants, families and seniors that we serve, and we are extremely grateful to them. It is in part thanks to the countless number of hours volunteers have given us that we are able to provide such impactful programming for our participants. So again, in celebration of National Volunteer Week, we wish to thank our amazing volunteer coordinators and all of our wonderful volunteers for their time and commitment in serving the people of western Queens.
In recent years, the democratic process of participatory budgeting (PB) has been steadily growing in popularity across the five boroughs. Here in District 26, Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer just marked his third year of successfully engaging residents in deciding how $1 million dollars of discretionary capital funds should be spent – an initiative that Riis Settlement played an active role in this year. Serving as community partner to Councilmember Van Bramer and his team, Riis Settlement staff members and participants volunteered as canvassers and poll workers in the last week of March, helping to spread the word and encouraging residents in the Queensbridge and Ravenswood communities to cast their votes!
The district saw a record participation rate this year with a total of 5,125 residents casting ballots for community improvement projects – marking a 42 percent increase over the previous year’s 3,600 votes. This year was also the first time that residents could vote online and nearly a fifth of voters (1,077) chose to do just that.
When announcing the results on April 28th at the Woodside Library, Council Member Van Bramer declared that “because of the overwhelming enthusiasm for this year’s projects”, he would “go beyond the $1 million promised and fund 6 projects at almost $1.8 million dollars”. Of the eighteen proposed project ideas that ended up on the ballot, the following six projects garnered the highest number of votes:
- Mobile laptops and carts for P.S. 12, 76, 111, 112 and 116, as well as the Academy of American Studies and Aviation High School at a cost of $700,000;
- Bathroom upgrades for P.S. 12, 112 and 199 at a cost of $450,000;
- Auditorium upgrades at PS 111 and 166 at a cost of $200,000;
- Water fountain installation at P.S. 112 at a cost of $80,000;
- Expansion of the Teen Space and technology upgrades at the Woodside branch of the Queens Library at a cost of $150,000; and,
- Countdown clocks at bus stops throughout the district at a cost of $200,000
The district schools were clearly this year’s big winners, and that’s all thanks to the residents who got involved and made their voices heard. As an organization that has dedicated the last three years to expanding its voter mobilization efforts through its partnership with Community Votes, we are pleased to have played a small part in making this participatory budgeting cycle such a success and look forward to helping more residents get involved in the years ahead.