February 16, 2023

Avenues for Justice’s Volunteer Spotlight

Volunteers are an important part of each Participant’s journey at Avenues for Justice (AFJ). We currently have 60 volunteers, all individuals with a genuine commitment to our program, and with the majority living in the communities we serve. Volunteers coach our Participants online and onsite, through our HIRE UP programs, and help position our Participants for employment and academic success. They derive as much reward from workshops as our Participants.  

In 1980, Gary Wachter created Gary Wachter Editorial Inc., a TV commercial editing facility. His clients we read agencies working on commercials for companies such as AT&T, Johnson& Johnson, and Burger King. Gary also focused on making short films, even though in the early years, it was cumbersome and expensive to do so. He remained committed to making a difference in the lives of others and in the spirit of ‘giving back to the world’, Gary started making promotional films for nonprofit organizations. The idea behind Gary’s ‘Charity Docs’ was to help nonprofits raise money through the storytelling of their missions and clients in a documentary format.  

Every so often, Gary would look for neighborhood nonprofits to volunteer at on Charity Navigator. Conducting his nonprofit search in alphabetical order, Gary found himself offering his services to organizations which started with an ‘A’ ---hence how he found Avenues for Justice in 2021! Gary initially spoke with our Data and Communications Specialist, Wes, who asked if he would be interested in producing a short film about AFJ. After visiting our Lower East Side community center, Gary suggested that he teach a video class to our Participants. What Gary thought would be a couple of hours of volunteer teaching AFJ’s HIRE UP videography class, turned into a 25-hour per week Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP) training. 

Gary presents awards at the first Andy Awards in 2021.

Funded by the City of New York, SYEP is the nation’s largest youth employment program, connecting NYC youth and young adults, between the ages of 14 and 24, with career exploration opportunities and paid work experience each summer. In 2021,the City selected AFJ for the first time to host the SYEP program at our Lower East Side Robert Siegal Center. Over a period of six weeks, Gary facilitated 150 hours of AFJ Story Crew subsidized videography and filmmaking training to nine Participants. 

Gary recalls how, although the training was challenging, he was “very proud that each of the nine Participants made their own videos. Participants chose a variety of topics. The subjects were of great variety and reflected their interests and passions. Video subjects’ topics ranged from a Participant’s love for their dog to the art of giving manicures, while another featured gardens and nature. We decided to give the Participants recognition for their work by holding AFJ’s first Andy Awards ceremony which celebrated their final projects and accomplishments. At the end of the ceremony, each Participant was given a video camera as a present.” The video cameras were generously donated by Gary’s wife, Carol Ott, owner of Habitat Magazine.

In addition to the training, Gary took AFJ Participants on various outings. On the second day of SYEP, they visited City Hall and documented a “Heroes Parade” for frontline workers, interviewing city council members and participants on the street. A memorable experience for Gary was when Participants got to attend pre-productions meetings and participate in a shoot by Chimney Productions. 

Menkie Collins (on the right) presents Gary with an award at the 2021 Andy Awards.

Tragically, in the Fall of 2021, one of AFJ’s Participants, Menkie Collins, lost his life to gun violence in Harlem. Menkie participated in AFJ’s SYEP program with Gary, and was so inspired by his training that he volunteered to present Gary with an award from AFJ. It was because of Menkie’s passing that AFJ’s 2022 SYEP cohort devoted their summer to a documentary which examined youth gun violence. Gary helped Participants interview NYPD police officers, college professors, parents of victims, as well as each other about guns. Gary shared how, “many young adults felt they needed to carry a gun for protection. This was a lesson to me. It opened my eyes to their lives, which were so different than mine. I grew up in New York City and did not always feels safe walking down the streets, but never ever thought about carrying a gun.”

Currently, Gary is working on what we call our ‘Legacy’ film series. It consists of Program Graduate video interviews leading to short films about AFJ’s impact. We are grateful to Gary for the skillsets that he has taught our Participants and fortunate to have him as part of our AFJ family! 

Volunteers are the backbone of Avenues for Justice’s programming. If you would like to learn more about volunteering, please email Samantha Fikilini, Program and Activities Coordinator at sfikilini@avenuesforjustice.org.


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