Immigrants And Refugees
Neediest Cases

Lean on Them

Tien Hai Vu, who goes by Jake, volunteers at Encore, which provides meals and services to older residents in the theater district. Credit: Thomas Prior for The New York Times

In collaboration with the New York Times’ Neediest Cases Fund, we present this story of a volunteer with our Encore program.

This article is part of a series recounting the stories of people who received help from nonprofit organizations supported by The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund.

More than 50 blocks north, in Midtown Manhattan, Tien Hai Vu, who goes by the name Jake, was also dedicating his free time to helping other New Yorkers.

Mr. Vu wore an apron sporting buttons that read “BE KIND” and “NO BAD VIBES” as he made the rounds at Encore Senior Center. Located in the basement of St. Malachy’s Roman Catholic Church, the senior center is directly across the street from the Eugene O’Neill Theater, home of the current Broadway production of “The Book of Mormon.”

More modest productions including a recent Halloween costume contest have taken place on the senior center’s own stage. Beside it, several guests finished a yoga class as volunteers loaded oranges, milk and utensils onto trays for lunch service. An agency of Catholic Charities, also a beneficiary of The Neediest Cases Fund, Encore provides between 100 and 150 meals to seniors every weekday through a combination of meal service at the center and delivery throughout the theater district.

Mr. Vu, 21, began delivering meals for Encore in October 2020, as he was adjusting to his new life in a new city during the pandemic. He grew up in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and had come to New York to attend Baruch College, where he is a junior studying business. Living in New York City, he said, was his “only bucket list item.”

Mr. Vu said that even though he was new to the city, he felt a responsibility to its most vulnerable residents. “That’s something that’s very important to me: knowing that the people around me, my neighbors, are being fed,” he said.

He now serves meals every Friday, the one weekday he does not have classes at Baruch, and helps organize events, including the Halloween costume contest.

The work sometimes takes an emotional toll. At the senior center, “We get mail all the time that says ‘Deceased: return to sender,’” Mr. Vu said.

Mr. Vu has found a community that stretches across generations. He has been pulled into a seniors’ salsa class and has met other volunteers, including a cruise ship singer and an international journalist.

“That’s one of the best things about volunteering,” he said. “You’re coming to help others and you’re also learning, you’re doing this cultural exchange with other people. It’s really fun when you get to come here and then you learn beyond yourself,” he said.

Read about other stories in this article on the New York Times’ website.