this year’s volunteer heroes

People volunteer for many reasons: to make someone’s life a little better, to provide necessary services without the typical stressors of the workplace, to enjoy human interaction with new people. Each of the three volunteers featured here—in this issue’s special nod to community volunteerism—has discovered a niche that combines their unique skills and interests with their desire to make a difference.

Carol Keiles never expected her acts of kindness would blossom into a warm friendship. Rob Markell turned his enjoyment of driving into an indispensable service, enabling others to maintain their independence. And Moshe Rabinowitz’s commitment to environmental conservation and love of technology continually creates positive change.

These three Westchester residents also stand as a testament to the infinite range of opportunities for volunteer service, proving it’s possible to find meaningful work that satisfies the need for personal fulfillment as well as the desire to have impact.

For Moshe Rabinowitz (pictured above), deciding where to volunteer is a matter of balancing his passions.

When Rabinowitz retired about seven years ago, capping off a 50-year career as a computer programmer and software engineer, he already had a plan to do some volunteering. His first move was to search the Internet for ideas. That’s how he ended up in two wildly dissimilar volunteer roles that he still embraces today: a “glorified data entry clerk“ (his words) in the offices of Volunteer New York (VNY) and a vine-cutter for The Bronx River Parkway Reservation Conservancy.

For Rabinowitz, who is equally at home behind a desk or in the woods, the two positions offer the perfect balance. Once a week, he heads over to VNY’s White Plains office, where he provides administrative support to the Retired Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP of Westchester). The organization, an AmeriCorps clearing house, recruits, trains, and places people 55 and older in community-based human service agencies ranging from literacy volunteers to the Red Cross. Though Rabinowitz describes his position there as “unglamorous and strictly clerical,” it was right up his alley, and he jumped on it.

Rabinowitz maintains VNY’s volunteer database, chats with the paid staff (“They’re fun people,” he says), and assists in processing the paperwork needed to apply for grants, the lifeblood of most nonprofits. Once in a while, he accompanies the recruiting team in handing out flyers at senior centers or public libraries. “RSVP always needs more volunteers, people who are actually doing the work,” he says. “I don’t think what I do is all that great.” Rather, it’s rubbing shoulders with people he calls “truly dedicated” that gives him the most satisfaction.

Rabinowitz’s other volunteer gig is with The Bronx River Parkway Reservation Conservancy’s vine-cutting program. The BRP Reservation, Westchester’s oldest park, is a linear park adjacent to the Bronx River Parkway, covering more than 13 miles: from the New York City line to the Kensico Dam Plaza in Valhalla. Every other week, he goes out with a team to spend a few hours cutting down invasive vines that threaten the greenery along the parkway. “We can only go out when the weather cooperates, and it’s fairly strenuous,” he says. “I like the physicality of it—getting outside and getting dirty.”

Last year, he joined the board of directors, which concerns itself with the preservation of a major component of Westchester’s green areas. “I feel like I’m doing my part to beautify the parkway and to maintain the Conservancy,” he says. According to the Conservancy website, the volunteer vine-cutting effort, operating under the Westchester County Parks Department umbrella, has trained over 200 volunteers and saved a significant number of trees along the parkway.

Though Rabinowitz deflects praise for his volunteer activities, his small but mighty contributions to organizations he admires make it clear: making a difference doesn’t require grand gestures or broad strokes. Doing what makes you happy can be just as fulfilling, while doing a world of good.

Carol Keiles (shown above) freely admits to the occasional ulterior motive behind her volunteer activities. When she and her late husband, a U.S. Army officer, were newlyweds stationed in Germany, she grabbed the position as president of the Officers’ Wives Club. “I hated it, but I wanted to learn the language and make friends faster,” she admits. When her kids were in public school, she took on the job of PTA treasurer to get a bead on the best teachers. But Keiles has no ambitions—other than gratitude—about her current volunteer role: paying visits to a 100-year-old woman.

Keiles gave up her job as a medical technologist to embrace the life of a military wife. After her husband died, she moved back to New York to be closer to her grandchildren. Craving companionship, she looked into volunteering and discovered DOROT, a local nonprofit (headquartered in Manhattan but with a White Plains office for their local endeavors) focused on intergenerational connections that pairs volunteers of all ages with older adults.

Keiles’ first assignment was to deliver seasonal care packages to Westchester residents who lived alone. It sounded perfect for her: bring a surprise treat to someone you’ve never met before and spend an hour in pleasant conversation. “On my very first delivery, the door opened and there stood the sweetest woman. She was in her late 90s then, but her mind was as sharp as someone half her age,” Keiles recalls.

The two women hit it off immediately. “I was hardly inside the front door when we started talking. I was wearing a mask and she told me to take it off so she could see my face.” Sensing a kindred spirit, Keiles and her new friend connected over things they had in common. The older woman had grown up in Germany—Carol’s former stomping ground—and lived for a time in London, where one of Keiles’s sons lives.

“From that moment on, we’ve been great friends,” says Keiles. “I told her I was flying to see my son, and she said, ‘Bring me some Cadbury chocolate!’ and I said, ‘Sure!’ I’d do anything for her.” Keiles regularly telephones or stops by to see her friend, even bringing her 18-year-old granddaughter on occasion.

If she’s not “out being sociable,” Keiles is rarely without some form of volunteer service, like filling backpacks with medical supplies or spending a couple of hours a week playing with puppies for Guiding Eyes for the Blind—an activity she calls “my therapy.”

Though she doesn’t dwell on it, Keiles is aware that loneliness is a major threat to health and well-being that increases with advancing age. She herself stays active with tennis and golf. “My husband liked to say he married me for my athletic ability, not my cooking,” she jokes. After being sidelined by an injury, she now has a deeper understanding of how isolation can deplete the body and the mind. “I missed being around people,” she said. “That’s why I’m here, to give of myself.”

Rob Markell fancies cars: the sportier, the better. He’s owned and loved quite a few of them over the years. But when he decided to volunteer for RideConnect, a Family Services of Westchester program that provides free transportation to ages 60 and older who are no longer able to drive, he says, “I decided to be sensible and drive my 2013 Lexus GS 350 sedan. It’s a wonderful car.”

Markell joined RideConnect in July of 2014. Since then, he’s clocked about 800 hours as a driver—that’s more than 400 rides! He ferries his passengers to doctor appointments, social activities, the beauty parlor and the supermarket. Often, he needs to accommodate last-minute emergencies, like when an Uber or a lift from a neighbor falls through. He’s aware that someone without their own transportation faces uncertainty that can ruin their day. “Disruptions of any kind can be very stressful, but especially for someone who needs to see the doctor,” he says.

Markell works for an engineering support company that conducts inspections for the National Field Service. At 76, he’s earned the right to make his own schedule. “I like having the freedom to do what I like, and that includes volunteering,” he says.

Markell devotes one day a week to transporting passengers, often making two or three trips in a day. He enjoys meeting new people and, if they’re chatty, he’ll engage them in conversation, “about anything but politics,” he says. He always waits for his passengers after dropping them off. “People feel more secure if they know you’ll be there in front of the building when they come out,” he says.

Yet Markell recognizes his volunteer job is as much about providing human contact as it is about people-moving. He recalls a regular passenger whose family had taken away her car keys. “This woman was capable of driving herself, but her family just didn’t want her driving,” he says. “People who can’t get around are stuck, and that loss of independence can be a terrible thing.” He’s also had riders tell him he was the only person they’d talked to all day.

Markell has great respect for the way RideConnect operates. The agency discourages drivers from giving out their personal contact information or doing personal errands for passengers, and every ride must be booked through RideConnect. This not only deters unhealthy dependence on the drivers, but also protects the kind of volunteer who can’t say “no.”

“As an organization, they have a positive impact and they do it in a human way,” he says. “If I’m going to put my whole heart into volunteering, I want the organization to do the same. And they do.” Except for interruptions brought about by a health issue he had a few years ago, and briefly during the pandemic, he has kept driving, and will continue in the foreseeable future.

“I would not be good in an office licking envelopes,” he says. “Just put me behind the wheel of a car, and I’m good.”


Latest posts by Donna Moriarty (see all)