United Hebrew works with volunteers of all ages from all over Westchester County. Recently, our skilled nursing facility has been receiving help from one group of volunteers who come from halfway around the world.
For a few months now, five teenagers from China—all exchange students at Iona Prep here in New Rochelle—have been volunteering their time at our skilled nursing facility. They assist in moving residents to different events, they play BINGO with the seniors and, perhaps most important of all, they are there to listen as the residents tell the stories of their lifetimes.
“Our residents just love younger people,” says Mila Levine, Director of Therapeutic Recreation/Volunteers at United Hebrew. “They love meeting new people and they love the interaction.” It’s also worthwhile for the students, she added, who gain social skills, learn empathy, and gain confidence in helping others. “Our volunteers play an important role for us, and we also work with them to ensure their experience is as meaningful as possible.”
For Xionghui Xie, who goes by the English name Jackson, the chance to talk with and help seniors helps to ease the homesickness he feels when he misses his grandparents in China. “They treat us like their own kids,” says Jackson, 16, a sophomore.
The students visit thanks to the Ivy International Group, an organization that places students from China in American schools. Ivy International also helps them with activities outside the school. Wenbo He, a home-stay coordinator for the organization, whose English name is Brenda, said the students come from different cities in southern China. Many come from affluent families and may have family cooks and babysitters back home, she said.
“Here, they finally have a chance to see, ‘Oh, there are people who have needs, and I can help them with their needs.’ It’s very important for their development,” said He.
Volunteer Qinfeng Li, also known as Frank, sees the benefit in his time spent serving our residents. “It helps me,” the 17-year-old sophomore said. “I think it’s good to help others. After I help transport them, they thank me and they are happy.”
Some of the students may be new to volunteering, but when it comes to socializing with residents, they’re naturals, according to Levine. “They have a very gentle, very empathetic nature. It’s really helpful, because they are very mature and you can rely on them,” she said. Their assistance is especially appreciated on weekends, when there is a smaller staff on hand and many activities take place, she added. What’s more, they connect with United Hebrew’s Chinese-speaking residents, who may feel isolated by the language barrier, Levine says. Recently, one of the residents stopped one of the volunteers and chatted on, thrilled to have someone who understood her.
In June, the students will return to China and to their families, says He. Until then, volunteer Guokang Su, also known as Lucas, says he appreciates the chance to learn from his experiences here.
“I need to be more independent so I need to do a lot of things for myself,” say the 16-year-old sophomore. “This is a very good chance to let us learn how to help others.”