Volume 17, Number 46 | April 8 — 14, 2005

Gerson gets by with help from volunteers

By Claire F. Hamilton

Downtown Express photo by Claire F. Hamilton
Audrey Harkins and Roger Mok, volunteers in City Councilmember Alan Gerson’s office.
The shortcomings of city legislation rouse volunteers to get involved in parks and public schools in an effort to make a difference. But suppose one could go straight to the source of public policy? At Alan Gerson’s Council District 1 office across the street from City Hall, volunteers not only work with the community at large, they are also a key cog in the political operations of the councilmember’s office.

Gerson uses the services of roughly 20 volunteers per year, who include permanent aides, as-needed experts doing pro bono work, short-term clerical help and student interns. With a multilingual constituency of about 150,000 scattered across part of Greenwich Village, the Lower East Side, Chinatown, Little Italy, Soho, Wall St. and beyond, Gerson relies on the generosity of active citizens.

“We have an ambitious legislative agenda, and the same council budget as any other district,” Gerson said. “The way to make up for that is to work efficiently and effectively and tap into pro bono resources.”

One item on Gerson’s agenda is post 9/11 cleanup. Dr. Mark Wilkenfeld, an occupational and environmental physician at Columbia University, acts pro bono as an advisor to Gerson and liaison to the Environmental Protection Agency. A resident of District 1, the 44-year-old doctor started volunteering when he realized the environmental impacts of the twin towers’ collapse. Wilkenfeld now spends 15 hours per week trying to expand park boundaries and get them cleaned up because he finds the work personally rewarding. “It’s the satisfaction of knowing that I’m helping my community,” he said.

Senior citizens are a core volunteer group because they’re retired, but also because they’re longtime community members — an asset to a local representative trying to tap into his constituents. Lucy Cecere, an 80-year-old New Yorker who was a co-founder of the Village Nursing Home in Greenwich Village and the Caring Community — an organization aiding seniors — acts as Gerson’s senior liaison and policy analyst, mostly working from home. She often attends conferences to assess the availability of affordable housing and the means to secure it with public resources. With a dedication she believes her mother instilled, Cecere says, “It’s your neighborhood, and if there’s anything you can do to ensure that it stays the way residents want it to stay, then you do volunteer work.”

Audrey Harkins, a 73-year-old retired schoolteacher, is a volunteer receptionist in Gerson’s office — no simple task, considering the many problems and issues Manhattan residents face.

“Some are calling about matters they’re very, very concerned about,” she said, the tone of her voice indicating how emotional these calls can sometimes be. Harkins met Gerson at a tenant meeting for Gateway Plaza, in Battery Park City where she lives and serves on the board. Harkins was pushing for more affordable housing when she met Gerson, and seeking other volunteer opportunities in an area that’s seen dramatic change. “The church used to serve residents in the area; now that’s all over with,” noted Harkins. Having shopped around for things to do, Harkins is now satisfied: “I’m not only helping Alan with the city, but I feel very good doing this; it’s changed the quality of my life.”

Good connections are a bonus for high school, college and graduate students volunteering in Gerson’s office. Roger Mok, 24, a Fordham law student who comes in to the office twice a week, writes summaries about street vendors’ rights, for example, so that the councilmember can efficiently address local issues, in the form of neat packages.

“I was always interested in politics, and it’s a chance to get my feet wet, learn about the political process, meet people,” Mok said. He got a summer internship with a judge who just happened to know a staff member in Gerson’s office. Though an accomplished student in his own right, the reference “didn’t hurt,” Mok pointed out.

Gerson says it’s not uncommon for young volunteers to find government jobs. In fact, he hired a former volunteer, A. Solomon Turkel, as his legislative director. A Chinatown native who has worked with Gerson for two years, Turkel, 25, has tracked bills from conception to enactment. “Alan has the particular ability to get people interested in and devoted to things,” Turkel said. The young volunteer’s proficiency around the office even lends itself to fielding questions about the exact number of cobblestone streets in the West Village — a recent caller’s inquiry. However, in this case, he made the decision to refer the caller to better sources.

Sometimes an intern’s work can be unglamorous, Gerson admitted, such as setting up chairs and cleaning up after meetings.

“There’s a lot of paper filing, but that’s the grease that makes the wheel turn,” he said. Physical labor and interesting research is a combination often suited to younger help, said Gerson, but every volunteer is guaranteed to work directly with a permanent staff member on legislation projects. He assured: “You’ll get to see the workings of city government up close.”

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