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Republican Delegates Volunteer in New York City - 2004-08-31


Some 5000 Republican delegates and alternates are spending their nights in New York City cheering speakers at the Republican National Convention. But while many are spending their days touring, shopping and going to museums, some are volunteering to help the less fortunate. A kitchen worker at a Christian shelter for needy men gives instructions to several dozen Republicans from Pennsylvania.

Worker: "You guys, over here, peeling potatoes."

They crowd into a kitchen, strap on hair nets and aprons, and get to work. Lynette Villano is one of delegates, volunteering for the morning to help feed the hungry.

"We all felt, well at least I did, that New York has been such a gracious host to us, that in some small way we could pay back," said Ms. Villano.

The privately funded shelter, called the Bowery Mission, prepares up to a thousand meals a day. Many of those who come here are struggling to overcome drug addiction and straighten out their lives.

Joseph is one of them. He lives at the mission, studies the Bible and works in the kitchen. He says he's not sure what to think about the Republicans, or all the television cameras that are following them around.

"I think it's an interesting thing," he said. "I think it's good for them to see the front lines of New York City and to see what it's really like for the people that really have nothing and are trying to change their lives. These are the front lines."

In any case, he says he came prepared.

"I do have my digital camera and I'm looking for those face shots. Yes, yes. Excellent," he added.

The volunteer effort was met with skepticism by some, including about a dozen protesters who held anti-Bush banners and waited outside the mission for the Republicans to arrive.

K. Webster is a neighborhood resident.

"We wanted to be here to notice that we think the Bush agenda has created, well, we don't think that, the statistics just came out that 1.3 million more Americans are living in poverty," she noted. "And we think it's a bit of a sham. I mean I like the people, I have nothing against the people, the people are people. But the agenda we think is faulty and has driven this country into deep, deep trouble."

Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, who accompanied the delegates to the shelter, told reporters he disagrees.

"I reject the idea that somehow or another that poverty is now a major increasing problem," he said. "We had a recession, obviously when we have a recession the economy slows down and people get hurt and people are going to fall into poverty."

With the Republican Convention in town and protesters holding daily demonstrations, political debates are popping up everywhere in New York City. But the shelter's fundraising director, Glenn McKinney, says he hopes people can realize what they have in common through volunteering.

"To just make volunteering and put aside all the politics and say we want people to come and help and hopefully look by any differences and least come together on this issue that we need to help organizations like the Bowery Mission in our community," said Mr. McKinney.

But even the Christian men's shelter itself is linked to a controversial issue: faith-based initiatives. The Bush administration supports them, on the basis that churches and religious programs are successful in reaching out to the needy, and should be funded with federal money. Opponents of faith-based initiatives say the government should not get involved in religious matters, and they point out that most of these initiatives encourage discrimination by funding predominantly Christian causes.

In spite of it all, delegate Bob McCloskey said that he hopes that the volunteer effort will help the naysayers see the true nature of Republican ideals.

"A lot of people have the false impression of the Republican party. They think that we're all rich and everything and that's not true," he said. "I'm a retired teacher and most people are just common, everyday people. I think people get the wrong impression of us. We're not above rolling up our sleeves and doing a little work for free."

After his morning at the shelter, Senator Santorum said that he learned a thing or two as well.

"I sat down and had a conversation with a man who was from Barbados. He came to this country and ended up with a crack (drug) addiction," he explained. "We had a wonderful opportunity to sit and share and talk about his life and where he's going. I shared some of my own personal experiences. To me, that's what volunteering is all about."

Meanwhile, the cook, known as Chef Herb, turns sausages on a grill and makes hesitant conversation with an apron-clad delegate, who is stirring a huge pot of tomato sauce for lunch.

"When anybody can come out of their comfort zone, when they could be anywhere else in the world, and they come here to help these people that have been, some of them, we don't know what happened to them last night, but they're here today. It's a good thing. You know, people helping people," he added.

Chef Herb says his only concern is having enough food to feed everyone.

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