How Volunteering Transformed My Life
As part of our 40 Days of Hope Lenten calendar, we asked various supporters in our network to share reflections on why they pray, serve, or give. Read more at: www.hfny.org/lent
Volunteering and engaging volunteers as part of my full-time work at The Bowery Mission stems from my own turbulent experiences in New York City.
Experiencing Need in Childhood
Growing up with immigrant parents who had limited resources and education, my family always struggled with stable housing and food insecurity. I grew up on food stamps, government assistance, and supplemental security income, and I had to relocate more times than I wanted to as a child. People are shocked when I tell them I moved over 15 times before I turned 15! Whenever my parents, brother, and I moved into a new apartment, we always found it challenging to develop a healthy relationship with the landlord. My mother clashed with the owners, rent did not get paid on time or at all, and we would eventually have to relocate to another neighborhood in Brooklyn. The four of us lived anywhere from tight two-bedroom apartments to rat-and-roach-infested basements. At one point, my brother and I were placed in foster care with a relative because of our housing situation.
My mother has struggled with her mental health for as long as I can remember; she has been in and out of the hospital, slept on the sidewalk, and spent many days at a local women’s shelter. We received a myriad of help from social workers and counselors, as well as friends and family. Fortunately, food was never an issue because my brother and I had access to free meals through the after-school and summer programs in our neighborhood. In sharing all of this, I hope to communicate my understanding of how addiction, mental disabilities, and life circumstances can drive individuals and families to live in difficult situations, and how the support of community, friends, and volunteers can make a difference.
Discovering The Father's Heart Ministries
I first discovered my love for volunteering when my church’s youth minister organized a group of us to visit The Father’s Heart Ministries on the Lower East Side. We served an early morning breakfast to the community and serving with church friends gave me the perfect excuse to avoid being at home on a Saturday morning. It was eye-opening to see the number of people who came together to serve and it was refreshing to give up my time for something so meaningful. Ever since that experience, I’ve craved the opportunity to help those who needed extra support—whether it was providing food, directing people to social services, or helping with longer-term housing.
In 2018, I had the opportunity to visit a local church and meet a pastor whose passion and purpose were focused on advocating for people in need. After listening to him share his heart for reaching homeless neighbors in Chinatown, I jumped at the opportunity to participate in outreach with the church. I began to spend my Friday evenings with them, walking through various parts of the city (Penn Station, Coney Island) to give away packed care kits (socks, deodorant, underwear, pants) and buy food for people who asked for a hot meal. Our group interacted with people and heard fascinating stories. As awkward as it was to approach someone, the reward of conversation and prayer made each encounter worth the effort.
Serving Cru Inner City and Next Step Community Church
At the start of the pandemic, I was working as a field missionary with Cru’s high school ministry. After searching for opportunities on Hope for New York’s website, I decided to bring a group of students to Recovery House of Worship in downtown Brooklyn, (now known as Next Step Community Church) to pack groceries for individuals struggling with food insecurity. I also brought the group to Cru Inner City’s ministry in Long Island City, where they had the opportunity to make gospel bracelets. The pandemic had given me space to reflect and process what I felt God had been putting on my heart for a long time. What if I could work in this field and encourage people to volunteer daily?
In 2021, I started applying to non-profits seeking individuals who desired to make a difference in the community. I came across The Bowery Mission, one of the most well-known organizations in New York City combating homelessness and food insecurity. After serving as a volunteer during a lunch prep shift and having a meaningful experience, I decided to apply to join the volunteer department!
Finding Purpose at The Bowery Mission
Why do I volunteer and engage people in volunteering? Because I believe the greatest joy comes from serving Jesus in the form of serving our brothers and sisters in need. In Matthew 25, Jesus describes the sheep he will welcome into the kingdom—those who gave him food or water when he asked for it. Imagine this: We are given the opportunity to give to God every time we serve the least of us! This verse changed how I saw and served people, especially those we tend to ignore on the street.
Our deepest desire is to provide for those with limited options, to give freely to our neighbors living in precarious situations. At The Bowery Mission, we’re grateful to have more than 7,000 volunteers join us annually to provide food, care kits, and clothing to people who need these resources the most. If you’re looking for a way to give back, start by serving a meal at one of our campuses in downtown Manhattan and see how a simple two-hour shift can change the trajectory of your life. Learn more about The Bowery Mission and how to serve.
Raymond Tieu, a long-time HFNY volunteer, is currently the Volunteer Coordinator at The Bowery Mission.