Why I Serve – Debbie Chen


Hello! My name is Debbie Chen, I’m 22 years old and I serve on the New York Civic Engagement team here at City Year New York. I joined City Year straight out of college (shout out to any Cornell alumni out there!). I wanted to put off the real world and dedicate a year to national service. My decision was not particularly well received among friends and family, with responses ranging from “You’re doing…what? Why?” to “You’re supposed to be making money and supporting us.” You can take one guess as to who provided that lovely reaction. But so far, the experience has been phenomenal.

Most teams at City Year are school-based, working with kids in low-income areas through literacy tutoring, after-school programs and the like. Our team – affectionately known as NYCE – is unique in that we focus on physical service. We pair up with community centers and corporate partners to paint murals, construct bookshelves and planter boxes, and beautify public spaces. Perhaps the best way to describe our position is as a “non-profit event planner.” During the fall and spring seasons, we have an average of 1-2 service days per week, which doesn’t sound too rough until you factor in all the preparations involved. This includes plotting out the best service for a particular site, creating enough documents to fill a dictionary, hours of sorting tools, and loading the van (before the freight elevator closes – it’s a nightmare to bring all those tools down the stairs by yourself!).

Our culminating project of “first semester” was MLK Day (held, you guessed it, on Martin Luther King Day). This one day brought in 900 people including City Year, community members and City Heroes/Young Heroes (our high school and middle school groups, respectively) for a “day on, not a day off.” Since October, NYCE had been running around doing site visits, devising transformative projects, meeting with staff on a weekly basis, and compiling about a million pieces of paperwork to bring it all together. Although the work was exhausting, seeing everything fall into place the day of was truly incredible. As the director for the whole event, I had many people asking me, “Why don’t you look more stressed out?” Honestly, I have my team and my MLK committee to thank for all their advanced planning that made it possible for this day to go by sans chaos. That’s one of the best things about City Year – no matter what happens, people come through for you. They understand the concept of teamwork and that we’re all working together towards a common goal. I’m looking forward to the slower upcoming months until the next rush of service days in the spring!

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