Here is a conversation with Gail Brennan, our new Volunteer Coordinator for the Free Brown Bag Program, about her background, experiences so far, and hopes for the future.
When did you officially become the Volunteer Coordinator for the food pantry at the Center for Recovery and Wellness?
This is my second week, I started last Monday.
You have been volunteer number one at the pantry for a while, so could you please elaborate on how you came to start volunteering here? And how did you go from just a volunteer to being as involved as you have been?
I started volunteering here at the Free Brown Bag program back In July during the middle of COVID. It was a little bit after the worst of it in New York when I was afraid to leave the house and whatnot. But when it became clear COVID was going be around for a while, I wanted to get involved locally in the community. I live about 15 minutes from CRW. I was seeing food lines around the neighborhood and wanted to help. When I came in for the first time, Angela asked me, ‘will we see you again next time?’, and I said, ‘maybe’. And then I ended up coming back basically every week twice a week until they hired me, I wouldn’t go away. Pedro Cordero (Health Coordinator) and Keithie Lawrence (Director of Recovery Services) started to notice that I was always here and realized that it would be helpful to have a volunteer coordinator on staff to run the Free Brown Bag, and then down the road more broadly a volunteer coordinator for all the other volunteer programs we can be doing here.
You pretty much saw a big need in this community since you live around here.
Yeah, I wanted to do something. I realized that I was probably at relatively low personal risk for developing a bad case of COVID. I realized I could go out and volunteer at probably not too great a risk for myself and it would be something I could do to contribute to the community. In no way did I think it was going to lead to a full-time position, it just felt like the right thing to be doing during this time.
Before you started volunteering, what was your other job?
I was in banking for longer than I care to admit. I worked in Strategy and Operations at Citi Ventures, which is the innovation and venture capital wing of Citi.
I left that before COVID when I realized it wasn’t fulfilling. The work was interesting, but at the end of the day I felt like there wasn’t a lot of purpose to it beyond making money for myself and the company’s shareholders. I wanted a change, so I took some time off to figure out what’s next for me. At that point I had realized I wanted to get into the nonprofit space, but I wasn’t quite sure where or how that would look for me. I thought my skills were probably very transferable from what I was doing in banking to the nonprofit space, but I didn’t quite know how to act on that.
Now that you’re now that you’ve been the Volunteer Coordinator for a bit, what has your experience been like overall doing this so far?
Everyone’s been so welcoming, kind, and happy to have me here, so it’s been a great feeling. I think they are happy to see me and think I have a lot to offer here. My immediate priority is to get the Free Brown Bag program running as well as we can…I want to make it as great of an opportunity as possible for the volunteers to come in and make them feel like they are adding value so they want to come back. I want to make some improvements to make it more organized and to make it as excellent as it can be.
In terms of these improvements, what are your greatest priorities?
First off, and most importantly, I just want to express what a great job the team here was doing before I showed up. The CRW team built a wonderful program, from the ground up, that was feeding the community and attracting volunteers like myself to participate. And they were running it in their “extra” time on top of their regular jobs. Part of the value of bringing me in is to have someone whose primary focus, at least in the short term, is on making the Free Brown Bag program the best it can be.
Additionally, as former “volunteer number one” at the Free Brown Bag, I bring a “volunteer perspective” to my job. And my number one priority, which we’ve already started, is to enhance the volunteer experience. This includes trying to build deeper connections with the volunteers, and also creating more structure in how we get the food from the boxes into the bags that we hand out. The main goal is to create a more organized, less chaotic process where volunteers feel like they know what to do and aren’t scrambling or getting stressed out. I also want to play with volunteer arrival times so less of their time is wasted sitting around waiting for the food delivery truck to arrive. Having started as a volunteer, I understand what feels good as a volunteer versus what feels like, ‘why did I even show up?’” I have also volunteered in other places where I felt they didn’t need me, so I never want the volunteers to feel like they wasted their time coming out. We could not do this without the volunteers that show up every week, and I want to be sure that they feel that appreciation.
If your short-term goal is to improve the volunteer experience, what are your long-term goals?
In the medium term, I’d like to address the Free Brown Bag client experience. There are long lines and a lot of waiting time for clients. And I think people feel nervous about whether or not they will get food. Finding a way to bring a little more dignity to the food line outside I think would be great. There are ways to do it, I want to bring my background in innovation and apply some of that thinking here. For example, there’s an app where you can have food pantry clients make reservations. Rather than waiting on a long line they actually get maybe a 10-minute window to come pick up their food…This is something I’d like to explore, if we could do it that’d be amazing.
And then in the long term, my goals are to launch more volunteer programs and opportunities to serve the community as well as the CRW client base. During COVID, a lot of things aren’t possible. But once we’re in a place where we’re allowed to gather again, there’s a lot we can be doing here. I’m not yet sure what it will all look like, but I’m excited to see what we can do.
Is there anything else you’d like to share as a closing thought?
I’m just excited to be here. I didn’t start volunteering with the end goal of working here, but really couldn’t imagine it playing out better. I was looking for something more rewarding and soul-fulfilling and valuable to society, I started showing up and ended up working here. I’m super excited to be here and I thank everyone at CRW for making happen.