Sharing a meal with others is rarely just about food – it’s also an exercise in companionship and community. Byron Allen, a project manager in the middle-office client service delivery group in Pittsburgh, volunteers for a charitable organization that feeds both the stomachs and the spirits of people living with HIV and AIDS. Allen, a 14-year veteran of BNY Mellon who joined the company straight out of college, spoke with Behind the Scenes about his community service activities. He firmly believes that helping others has helped him just as much.
You are a long-time volunteer with several local Pittsburgh charities, but one is very special to you. Tell me about your work with Shepherd Wellness Community.
We work to help people living with HIV and AIDS to improve their wellness. I’ve been doing this for at least six years, and in fact this year I was asked to join the board of directors.
The organization came into being in 1987, in the darkest days of the AIDS epidemic, and has evolved as treatment has improved. We provide a wide range of services to people with HIV and AIDS, aimed at providing emotional support, combating isolation and loneliness, and fostering wellness. But our hallmark is our Friday Wellness Dinners, which have proved to be very important in helping people connect and form a social support network as they live with their diagnosis.
The Wellness Dinners are a weekly event full of encouragement for individuals affected by HIV/AIDS and their loved ones. They are something everyone looks forward to. We provide a nutritious meal in a friendly setting, and we also prepare take-home meals to help our members supplement their nutrition in the week ahead.
I volunteer at the dinners frequently, and two weeks out of the year, BNY Mellon sponsors a dinner. I work to bring together a group of great participants. We prepare the meal, which includes appetizers, beverages, a main course, and dessert, and we serve and then clean up at the end of the night. We have 10 or more volunteers per event, and we serve anywhere from 30 to 80 people.
Why did you get involved in Shepherd Wellness Community?
A friend asked me to come to one of the dinners, which was sponsored by the Pittsburgh chapter of PRISM, BNY Mellon’s employee LGBTQA employee network. I really enjoyed the spirit of everyone who participated, and I said OK, I’ll do this on a monthly basis.
When I started volunteering, I was not an outgoing person. I was focused on my career, and not so much on the community. Through my involvement as a PRISM ally, that began to change. I developed an informal mentoring relationship with a member of the leadership team. He urged me to use my passion for volunteering to lay the groundwork for growth in my career. He said, “Go to events, talk to leadership, and don’t wall yourself off or create your own silo.” By volunteering alongside the program coordinators, I started learning how to lead, how to have conversations with your team, and ultimately how to set up a team. I applied all those experiences to my work life and started excelling and progressing in my career.
Can you give an example of how your volunteer work connects to your day job at BNY Mellon?
Volunteering with colleagues helps to remove silos that can develop around our departments. On my work team, we once spent three weeks trying to unravel a systems and technology issue for a new employee. Then one Saturday morning I had a Community Partnership event with the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank. I was discussing our tech issues with a friend when Heather, a volunteer I’d never met, jumped in and said. “Where do you work? I know what the problem is! Give me your information and I’ll contact you on Monday.” Monday came, and I received a call that morning. Heather – my new best friend! – resolved the issue in 45 minutes. It was truly amazing to me to see how beneficial Community Partnership could be in breaking down barriers and creating lasting solutions.
Why should allies like you be involved in PRISM?
I’m very honored to the PRISM ally co-chair for Pittsburgh. I think our involvement is critical, because allies must help create the environment where everyone can feel safe and comfortable. And frankly, that has real business implications – productivity goes up when employees feel safe.
As an African-American, I see some parallels between the Civil Rights movement and the Gay Rights movement. We live in turbulent times, and we have to be accepting and tolerant even if we don’t all share the same ideals. Just as whites played an important part in the Civil Rights movement, allies are important to the LGBTQA community. It’s a matter of privilege – having power and being willing to give up a little bit of it creates inroads and equity for others.
What would say to a prospective volunteer who wanted to help serve meals to people in need?
Do it! Any community involvement is fantastic. Most people who come to a nonprofit for aid or assistance are just looking for some kind of security, and when you volunteer you provide that security. Caring for those in need is not just a holiday issue. I don’t see it as a grand gesture of any sort. It’s just something we all should be doing.