Like many nonprofit organizations, The Bridge welcomes volunteers who are willing to donate their time and expertise to further our mission and enrich the lives of our clients. Founded in 1954 as a self-help organization for adults diagnosed with a serious mental illness, The Bridge has since expanded to serve 3,500 New Yorkers each year. Our over 40 programs include outpatient mental health and substance use services, Assertive Community Treatment (ACT), care coordination, emergency shelter, and supportive housing; volunteers are involved in many of these programs.
There are many ways for volunteers to support our work. Our Phone Pals program connects volunteers with clients who may feel isolated and are looking for regular social interaction by participating in weekly phone calls. We’ve invited corporate groups to spend the day in our programs running activities for our clients or beautifying our facilities; such events allow us to educate the public about our work and address the stigma associated with mental illness. We also have a junior board, which raises awareness of The Bridge’s work and hosts fundraisers which support important and unfunded initiatives that directly benefit our clients.
Most of our volunteers, however, provide direct onsite services to our clients by leading recreational groups in our outpatient and supportive housing programs. Popular topics for groups include arts and crafts, creative writing, wellness, yoga, movement, and mindfulness. Volunteers are encouraged to pick a topic that they are invested in and interested in, and we provide them with supplies and support to help ensure the success of their group.
Many of our clients express feelings of loneliness and isolation due to their mental illness. Through volunteer-run groups, clients connect socially with new people and engage with their peers. They can also access activities we might not have otherwise been able to provide – our volunteers have included certified yoga instructors, MFA writing students, registered dieticians, and professional artists and dancers. Once an activities group is established, there is often a core group of attendees that will come back to each session, allowing them to get to know the volunteer and the other group members. The recurring nature of the groups allows for volunteers to build upon work from previous weeks. For example, some of our creative writing groups work on the same pieces from week to week, allowing clients to deepen their writing. Clients and volunteers alike look forward to these groups.
The volunteer program benefits not just our clients. Our volunteers benefit too, often in ways beyond the general satisfaction of giving back to their community. Many of our volunteers are interested in The Bridge and our population because they are considering changing careers or going back to school. Some have never worked with adults with a serious mental illness and running activities groups can be a great opportunity to get hands-on experience before making the jump into a new field. They can also gain an understanding of social service delivery in New York City, get an up-close look at how services are provided, and learn some basic clinical best practices.
The Bridge is happy to support our volunteers in their long-term goals, including returning to school or switching careers. For those who are interested in learning more about the variety of services we provide or how to enter the social services field, we provide tours and answer questions. We often write letters of recommendation for academic programs on behalf of our volunteers, and many volunteers have successfully entered programs for social work, mental health counseling, and other related fields. We’ve even had volunteers return to intern or work for us.
Our volunteers are enthusiastic, dedicated to our clients, and truly committed to The Bridge’s mission and approach. In line with city and state requirements, volunteers complete a background check and are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. They also attend an orientation that includes training on trauma-informed and person-centered care, therapeutic boundaries, and mandated reporting. To reduce turnover, volunteers make a minimum commitment of six months.
Investing in our volunteers has so many benefits. For our clients, it addresses loneliness, builds community, and provides access to new and engaging activities. For our agency, it expands and strengthens the services and activities we can offer our clients, and helps reduce stigma surrounding mental illness, homelessness, and substance use disorders. For our volunteers, it offers an avenue to apply their skills to the benefit of others and explore potential career opportunities for themselves. For the field of behavioral health care, it invests in future clinicians and fosters an interest in social services. Truly a win for all involved.
Meg Dowd is Development Coordinator and Kelly Beliveau is Administrative Services Director for The Bridge. For more information on The Bridge or its volunteer program, please visit us at www.thebridgeny.org or email email@example.com.