In honor of National Volunteer Week, April 18-24, United Way of Northeast Florida is highlighting outstanding community volunteers dedicated to making a difference all year long.
Jewish Family & Community Services describes Cecilia Cristol as a “rock star” and someone who “puts her all into anything she does.” As a JFCS volunteer for several years, Cecilia has tackled everything from the frontlines in the Max Block Food Pantry and participating in the Senior Food Box program to serving on the annual event committee, and so much more. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Cecilia continued to assist JFCS in the Max Block Food Pantry, as well as deliver food to their Holocaust survivors safely. She assisted staff with setting up a safe way to manage the food pantry clients and helped organize it so that everyone remained safe. Most recently, Cecilia stepped up to manage JFCS’s partnership with Doordash.
Here’s what Cecilia had to say about her experience as Northeast Florida Changemaker:
Describe the person or event that inspired you to give back to the community.
I started volunteering with Jewish Family & Community Services because their work in the community with Holocaust survivors deeply moved me and is very personal as my mother is a Holocaust survivor. Having left Europe at nine years old with absolutely nothing, my mother continued to struggle for much of her life. After learning of the work JFCS does with survivors, I was eager to find a way to give back to my community, while at the same time honoring my mother.
My first opportunity to serve Holocaust survivors came when JFCS partnered with Feeding Northeast Florida to provide food delivery to them on a bi-weekly basis. I decided that this was the perfect way for me to get involved.
What I thought would be a small way to get involved turned out to be incredibly rewarding. I have become close and built strong relationships with many of the people I deliver food to and look forward to visiting with them each time.
When the pandemic began, the survivors were reliving harsh memories of the suffering, food scarcity and isolation they endured during their early lives. It gave me peace of mind to know that by continuing to deliver food, visit, and talk to them – if only through the door – they weren’t completely alone and our conversations seemed to bring them some comfort as well.
Since I began volunteering with Holocaust survivors, I have been inspired by the massive impact a small act of kindness can have. Wanting to connect with more people in our local community, I began volunteering at JFCS’s Max Block Food Pantry. It has provided me a weekly way to help our neighbors who are experiencing hardship. Many of the people who visit the pantry want to share their personal stories with someone who is willing to listen. And I am always happy to listen. I believe that it makes it easier on our clients when they feel as if they are being heard and not judged for asking for help. I always tell them, “everyone needs help sometimes.”
What would you say is the most rewarding aspect about volunteering?
You never know when circumstances could radically change and it’s YOU that needs the help of others. I pay it forward and support my community because it’s a part of who I am. I would like to think that by volunteering my time I have been able to make an impact on someone else’s life; that their life was changed because I listened and helped.
Describe the moment you realized your volunteer efforts were making a real difference.
You can see the difference in the one-on-one contact with JFCS clients. When you are able to spend time hearing their stories and really get to know them, you develop a close sense of community that is mutually beneficial. In my case, I have become attached to the clients I work with. I worry about them as much as I do my own family.
The people I am fortunate to serve come from backgrounds few of us could even imagine. They are trying to get by week-to-week with virtually nothing. I am thankful to be able to take a little of the burden off of them each week in my work with JFCS. Through our conversations I know that many times those small acts make all the difference.
If you could inspire people to do one thing to make Northeast Florida a better community, what would that be and why?
I would want everyone to meet their neighbors. Find out who they are, what their background is, what they do for a living. By knowing them, you can then better support them. If the global pandemic has shown us anything, it is that things can change rapidly. When change happens, it can be overwhelming – especially if something forces you to be isolated from your friends, family, neighbors, and co-workers.
Get out of your house and your head to find out what others are going through. By doing so you can better understand your community, better support its needs and do more things to help your neighbors. Once you start helping one another, the community will naturally do the same.
We all have something to contribute. Sometimes people are too scared, shy or don’t know where to begin. It takes a village to bring everyone’s talents out to make a community better. It all starts with you.
What advice would you give someone on the fence about whether or not they should volunteer in their community?
I think the rewards of volunteering always outweigh any hesitancy. What you give to your community will be returned triple-fold. Things are still bad for many due to the pandemic and it’s going to take us a while to climb out of this hole. Every little thing makes a difference. Change doesn’t happen alone – we all have to pay it forward for a worthwhile future.
I have been fortunate to have the opportunity to live in several different countries and experience different communities and cultures. In communities where people don’t volunteer, it is so hard on the people who are struggling. There aren’t opportunities to give back to people who need it. That’s when you see the real dichotomy – the very, very rich and the very, very poor.
I would tell anyone to take a chance on volunteering. Make giving back a normal part of your life. It will change you and the lives of the people you are helping.
Because change doesn’t happen alone, people like you are needed now more than ever to uplift the most vulnerable in our community. You can find a variety of community service projects, including opportunities to uplift historic East Jacksonville, at unitedwaynefl.org/volunteer.