It was a burning hot October afternoon in the Bronx when a little crowd of neighborhood kids gathered to watch a fallen tree airlifted into a truck by government workers. While the children stared, one local resident rushed forward to ask the workers if she could take woodchippings to fill the tree-pits and flowerbeds in the street.
“They said we can call whenever we need mulch!” said Nilka Martell, a mother of three. “That stuff costs hundreds of dollars to buy from the store.”
Martell would know. She has transformed Virginia Avenue in Parkchester since losing her paralegal job last December. After a long, cold winter unemployed and on benefits, Martell started volunteering for Department of Parks in April before gathering the courage to embark on a beatification project on her own street.
“You get so discouraged when you’re unemployed,” said Martell. “A friend and I got involved in volunteering so we don’t sit at home and go crazy, and at the same time we’re helping the neighborhood.”
Martell is one of an increasing number of New Yorkers keeping busy with volunteering as unemployment soars. Though New York falls far behind the national rate for volunteers, survey data compiled by government agency Volunteering In America shows that there was a climb in the number of people offering their time for free last year, from 16.4 percent in 2009 to 18.5 percent in 2010. That increase means an extra 300,000 people volunteering in New York, bringing the total number of volunteers to 2.8 million.
Statistics from Volunteering In America show that when unemployment hit 9.3 percent in 2010, 18.5 percent of the population took part in volunteer work. This is up from 2007, when the recession was officially declared. That year, 5.2 percent of New Yorkers were unemployed and only 14.7 percent volunteered.
Martell worked for a paralegal firm for 19 years before she lost her job. “I just figured I’d find another job quickly,” she said. “I’ve never had a problem finding a job.” As a single mother with two teenage children at home, it was a stretch to care for her family on savings and benefits and Martell had plenty of time sitting around at home to worry about the bills. After sending out resumes all winter, she starting to look at other ways to fill her time.
Though Martell was originally looking for legal work to help her get back into employment, she kept stumbling on online ads asking for volunteers with Department of Parks. Eventually, she signed up.
Soon Martell and her children Isaias, 13, and Lia Lynn, 15, were volunteering in parks all over the Bronx every weekend. Martell started looking for something to do closer to home. “I’ve lived in Virginia Avenue for 36 years and it’s always been such an eyesore,” Martell said. “There have always been high weeds, garbage and dog waste.”
“I thought, why not do something right here?” Martell said. “That way if I get bored I don’t have to wait until there’s an event.” She asked the owners of the C-town supermarket across the street if she could start caring for the flower beds behind their parking lot. Without any public funding, Martell and her friends were extremely resourceful, buying cut-price plants, saving dead bulbs and improvising border fencing from bits of scrap wood.
In just a few months, Mexican sunflowers started spilling into the street and bees appeared. Some residents even began clipping the big green leaves of the elephant ear plants to plant in their own gardens. Now, when Martell goes outside to work on the beds she is often joined by children from around block. Some of the kids are still learning English after moving from the Dominican Republic, but they are all keen to help water the flowers and plant new bulbs.
“This is a neighborhood where there are so many different cultures, but because of this project these kids have come together,” Martell said.
Though Martell is still sending out her resume for work, she’s now considering taking her beautification project elsewhere in the Bronx, helping other local residents transform their streets and invest in their communities.
“I didn’t think this was going to become this big,” she said with a smile. “If I hadn’t been laid off at this point in my life, there is no way I would be doing volunteer work.”