more faces of volunteerism

Wherever people are in need, you are likely to find volunteers. Many, if not most, of these volunteers are 55 and older.

This is certainly true at Feeding Westchester (FW), the nonprofit formerly known as the Food Bank for Westchester. Volunteers, many of whom are baby boomers and seniors no longer bound to the needs of careers or young children, comprise the bulk of FW’s staffing.

Feeding Westchester operates a distribution network that provides meals and groceries to food insecure county residents. Their supply chain relies on about 300 partners who collect donated and recovered groceries, fresh produce and meals, distributing them to food pantries, soup kitchens, shelters, daycare and residential programs, and FW’s own mobile food pantry. In 2019, the organization delivered the equivalent of 10.5 million pounds of food and 8.75 million meals to county residents — numbers that have been climbing dramatically since the start of the pandemic.

“A lot of people in Westchester believe hunger exists somewhere else,” says Karen Erren, FW’s president and chief executive officer. “Last year our network was serving about 150,000 county residents each month. During the peak of the pandemic in New York, that number rose to 351,000.”

Older people needing food assistance are on the rise, too. Last year, says Erren, FW helped about 21,000 seniors per month; in 2020, it’s been closer to 60,000. She says the thought of hungry people just like themselves often prompts older adults to get involved. “Many volunteers will say, I know there are people in my community who need food, and I’m going to make sure they get it,” she says. “This is neighbors feeding neighbors.”

Angela Usobiaga, 76, a retired nutritionist and health care administrator, has lived most of her life in Pleasantville. “There’s so much unmet need,” she says. Raised in a large family, she learned early to pitch in. “You were always helping your grandmother or watching someone’s kids.”

Once her own children were in school, Usobiaga began volunteering. A lot. For 20 years she was a first responder with the Pleasantville Ambulance Corps. She has helped organize community blood drives and volunteered for organizations devoted to the arts, the environment, and the welfare of women and children. Her background in nutrition and public health led her to Feeding Westchester where, until the pandemic, she volunteered several mornings a week.

Usobiaga’s transformative volunteer moment occurred when she went out with the mobile pantry for the first time. “It was the middle of winter, and there was a line of seniors around the block, waiting for hours in the cold for a bag of groceries,” she recalls. “Until that moment, I didn’t know what hungry people looked like.” To Angela Usobiaga, they looked like her neighbors.

Bob and Leah Ewoldt are typical of many Westchester residents of the same age cohort. Bob, 71, devoted 30 years to a career as an insurance executive while Leah, 68, stayed home to raise their two children.

Leah got the volunteer ball rolling. “I’ve always had a soft spot for seniors, so I started volunteering with my church, taking older members to appointments or cooking with them in their homes,” she says. She also taught catechism and clocked many hours with the PTA and local arts organizations.

When Bob retired in 2011, he found the days looming large and empty. He discovered Feeding Westchester and began devoting several mornings a week to organizing and packing food for distribution. Before long, Leah joined him. “Volunteering gives you structure and purpose,” he says. “You know what you’re doing on Tuesday and Thursday, and when your shift is over, you’ve helped someone.”

Leah, not one for lifting the heavy crates at the FW warehouse, found her niche working with small groups of special needs teens, packing lunches for food insecure school children.

The couple speak of their service hours matter-of-factly. “It makes sense to feed people who are hungry,” says Bob, and Leah adds, “It’s just being human to want to help.”

In March, the pandemic hit FW hard. Stay-at-home orders meant sidelining volunteers whose tasks brought them in close contact with others. When a cluster of COVID-19 cases in New Rochelle led officials to cordon off a one-mile containment zone, the National Guard was called in. Their assignment included maintaining operations at Feeding Westchester, which relies on 11,000 volunteers annually. Says Erren: “It was the only way this team could meet the increased need.”

Feeding Westchester has resumed operations with the strict health and safety practices that have become necessity. After the Guard was released from service, die-hard volunteers like Bob and Leah Ewoldt began returning to their posts, although some activities had to be scrapped. Leah says she misses working with the high school students but believes her volunteer work is still vital to hungry people. “What we do doesn’t just enrich their lives, it’s helping them be alive,” she says.

For Angela Usobiaga, who has never seen the point of sitting on her hands while there is so much need in the world, volunteering makes her a happier person. She notices a certain cantankerousness that some older adults develop as their world becomes smaller. “When you stop paying attention to the needs of others and focus only on your own, you get cranky and demanding,” she observes. “Whatever your physical or mental capacity, there’s [a volunteer position] you can do. If you’re alive and breathing, there is no reason not to help other people.”

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