Briskly approaching the brick red building, I quickly shoved my airpods back into their case, the sounds of Lower Manhattan replacing the daze of music. I double checked that I was at the right location despite almost being late. The blue dot on my phone overlapped right over the Bowery Mission. I stepped through the black doors to an expecting security guard.
“Here for the volunteer shift?” I nodded quickly in response, to which he gestured to sign in at the iPad. An older looking man sitting at reception behind a plastic screen eyed me with friendly eyes.
“Have you volunteered here before?” he asked.
“No, it's my first time,” I replied shyly, “do you know where I should go next?”
He gestured toward the cafeteria area, “Go straight down that way and turn right,” he said with a smile.
“Got it, thank you,” I said gratefully as I made my way through the doors. The cafeteria reminded me of public school, with long foldable tables and yellow fluorescent lights. The main difference were the plastic dividers on each table, placed in increments to allow space for a single person to sit down and enjoy their meal without risking passing covid to the person next to them.
Despite being a part of a service fraternity for over a year, volunteering at the Bowery Mission was the first time I had ever volunteered in person directly with people in need. I know that part of it was out of my control; I cannot control the path of covid, and it's no secret that volunteering has been difficult to pick up again after/during a pandemic. But the option was always there. I had always just pushed it away, claiming I would do it later. However, putting on the apron, cutting tomatoes for the salad for those who probably have not eaten at all today, I kept thinking to myself, “Why haven’t I done this before? How could I proudly tell people I’m a brother of a service fraternity?”
Rushing APO in Spring 2021, everything was fully online. I began the semester home in Long Island, and I continued the semester in Manhattan, rarely seeing anyone from my sublet in Hudson Yards. Discord and zoom were the main parts of my day, the daily stroll to the Brooklyn Fare downstairs, and a healthy walk around the Vessel for some fresh air. But what made those days special was pledging APO. Everyday, I had the opportunity to meet brothers, talk to pledges, and participate in events. Even if these events were almost all online, they kept me going through a difficult time.
Due to covid, the emphasis on service had decreased a lot. But our VP of Service worked hard to make service opportunities available to the fraternity, and I was and still am extremely grateful.
As the year progressed, I crossed, made close friends, joined e-board, and was excited for school to be fully in person. Moreso, I was excited to experience what APO was like in person. But when the semester started, it was nothing like how I fantasized it to be. Confusing covid regulations, and spiking covid peaks hindered any true return to in person fraternity/club events. This continued, and continued, and continued into the start of the spring semester. At this point, however, my brain, like many others, had been so scattered from the fall semester. The transition to fully in person classes while balancing a social life and fighting off covid at every angle, I was burnt out. I needed to clear headspace to focus on my academics, and unfortunately, this meant clearing out APO headspace. I decided to take a break for a week. And then another week. And then another. And before I knew it, the semester might as well have been over.
My friend, and fellow APO brother, wanted to volunteer at the Bowery that Friday dinner shift. I was at first apprehensive, knowing I had made plans for that night but I knew that I could make the time if I really wanted to. And I pushed myself to do it, for my friends, and for hopefully getting some credits up. But while cutting those tomatoes, serving rice with chickpeas and fried chicken cutlets to those in the community I typically pass with a New Yorker blind eye to every day, I was reminded of why I found such passionate and empathic people in APO. Even if brought to APO with social goals in mind, those that stay are bonded by more than just brotherhood but a genuine love for service, and connecting with those that share that compassion.
The future always seems so unsure these days with covid. As I return to my life as a busy college student, there will always be those in need with hungry mouths, unsure when they will eat next. I watched as people of so many backgrounds passed through the Bowery that day looking for a hot meal. I have to remind myself that I as one person cannot fix the world’s issues. But if I can help just one person, make their day just that much better, and connect with people who love doing the same, then perhaps it's all worth it. And that’s why I’m proud to be a brother of Alpha Phi Omega.
Michelle *Eris* Dong
Beta Lambda, Spring 2021