Andrew Oliver: Building One-to-One Relationships for the Disabled

Philanthropy Roundtable recently spoke with Andrew Oliver, founder of Do For One. Oliver works to address the problem of social exclusion by connecting disabled, socially isolated people living in New York City with others who can form relationships and respond to each person’s needs and interests. Do For One works to match advocate volunteers with disabled individuals who lack family and community and desperately need companionship, social support and inclusion.  

Q: Could you introduce Do For One, your mission, history and focus?  

Do For One focuses pretty narrowly on one specific but important thing: building freely given, one-to-one relationships for people with disabilities living in social isolation. We joke that we’re matchmakers of a non-romantic kind. We seek out people living in New York City who are socially isolated and have very few family members involved in their lives. Then we pair them with an advocate based on what we know about the person. We support those relationships, which potentially become long term.  

Q: What’s the story behind the Do For One name? 

The name Do For One comes from a motto coined by pastor Andy Stanley: “Do for one what you wish you could do for everyone. Go deep rather than go wide. Give time not just money.” That statement captures so much of the essence of what we’re about, and it’s an invitation we make for people to get involved. 

Q: Tell us your story and what led you to this work. 

I moved to New York City in 2003 to pursue opportunities as a musician, and I knew few people with a disability. Long story short, two years into living in the city, I had three or four roommates, trying to scrape by. You end up working all kinds of jobs just to survive, especially as an artist. 

I got a job at this agency called Job Path, which helps adults with developmental disabilities get more involved in their community and find work. This was a program that was in response to the deinstitutionalization movement. The first person I was assigned to work with, as a young, 20-something-year-old wanderer musician guy who knew very little, was a man named Tony Brooks. At age six, Tony was sent to a mental institution called Willowbrook State School on Staten Island, one of the world’s largest mental institutions at one point.  

Tony was abandoned by his family and he never saw them again. I met him much later in life when he was in his 50s. But as I got to know his story, my heart was broken. It just felt worlds apart from anything I had ever experienced in my life. 

I worked with him for two years. I hope I was of help to him, but he helped me because I realized that a lot of the stuff I was pursuing was pretty empty compared to what I got to do for him. Tony became like family to me.  

When I was no longer working with him on a paid basis, I stayed in his life. My friends became his friends. He started attending church with me. When my family would visit from Illinois on holidays, I would make sure to include Tony. While this would never replace his own family, I wanted to provide some sense of family in his life as best I could.  

My relationship with Tony taught me the value of freely given relationships, and I saw how healing that was for him. It was also healing for me. It wasn’t until later that I learned about the Citizen Advocacy program, and that’s when I realized my calling is to invite other people like me to have relationships with people like Tony. 

Q: Who is your typical client? What kinds of experiences do they have in common?  

We call the people who receive our services partners, rather than clients. We’re seeking disabled people in New York City who are significantly socially isolated. They’re without someone coming in from the outside to be a friend or advocate, and it’s likely they could stay socially isolated for the rest of their lives.  

We work with people who have cerebral palsy, autism, Down’s Syndrome, mild intellectual disabilities, quadriplegia — a wide range of disabilities. But the problem we’re addressing is social isolation or exclusion, not so much the disability. We don’t offer therapy or classes. Those things have their place, but we believe that actually, the biggest problem these people face is social exclusion. 

The problem is not so much that they have to use a wheelchair or have a mental disability. It’s that society has decided we don’t want people like that around.  

Q: The backstory with Tony is great. Do you have one or two other examples of compelling stories from people you’ve served?  

Another example is Shannon, who is quadriplegic. She became disabled when she was a teenager. And because of her broken family background, she largely became dependent on paid assistance and other social services to get the care she needs. She developed a very close relationship with one of her home aides, who is originally from Bolivia. In 2019, Shannon moved to Bolivia temporarily because she was so desperate to get good care. 

When Shannon moved back to New York City in fall 2019, I got an email from the U.S. embassy in Bolivia. They were wondering if we could be of help to her. At the time, we were a small program with one full-time and one part-time staff member. I was a little nervous.  

Shannon was being moved to Coler Hospital on Roosevelt Island. And go figure, that’s actually where our “headquarters” is, so to speak.  

Shannon arrived with her backpack and nothing else. While she was getting settled at Coler Hospital, I matched her with an advocate who helped her get food and other necessities, get settled in, and help her feel as much at home as possible. The advocate got her a cell phone with a service plan so she could contact her friend in Bolivia.  

Little did we know the pandemic would hit months later and the hospital would go on lockdown. Shannon used that cell phone to figure out how to get out of the hospital and find an apartment on the Upper West Side. There, we matched her with another advocate, Karen.  

Karen lives just a few blocks away from Shannon, and they became close friends. Shannon has had a number of crises of late and had to go back to a nursing home temporarily, but Karen was there throughout it all, advocating for her.  

That’s just one story. Chris, one of our advocate volunteers, works with Evan, who has some mental disabilities. Chris is a pastor at One Community Church in Hell’s Kitchen. His position has paved the way for Evan to have valued social roles within the church.  

Evan has been given the opportunity to lead some community outreach groups that are cleaning up the neighborhood. They helped the police precincts in Hell’s Kitchen, for example. And Evan is seen and valued as a leader in that church.  

Both of these examples show how these connections can not only be protective and sometimes lifesaving, but also give somebody a leg up in society. This experience has given Evan a chance to not just be served, but actually to serve – to step up and become a leader and culture-shaper in the church. 

Q: What are your advocate volunteers typically like? Who is drawn to that role?  

We have some young advocate volunteers in their 20s and some in their 60s, but most are in their 30s and 40s. They’re mostly busy New Yorkers, committed to their jobs and things like that. We try to find people who consider New York City their home and not just a place to stay temporarily, because we want people to commit to these relationships.  

People are motivated to enter these relationships for a variety of reasons. A majority of them are motivated by their faith, and by Jesus’s teachings to be a good Samaritan and to be hospitable to the lowly and the rejected. Do For One offers them a really authentic way of doing that.  

Q: Tell us a little bit about the future. What are your goals?  

Our mission is solely focused on building one-to-one, freely given relationships. We want to just keep getting better at doing that.  

Starting in 2024, we’re looking to start multiple Do For One chapters. Rather than Do For One continuously growing larger and larger, with more and more staff, we will actually have multiple small, grassroots chapters located and invested in particular neighborhoods. We could then potentially move out beyond New York City.  

One encouraging development is we’ve had multiple people come to New York to visit us and learn about our program. 

Q: If money were no object, what would you envision for your organization?  

We would like to continue to provide stability within our current program, and to grow beyond that and provide seed money for new Do For One chapters, both within and outside the city. We could continue to invest in our leaders and get them all the support they need to make that happen.  

It’s tempting to say, “Oh, we would have a building in Manhattan and provide housing” or we would start a school or something like that. But I’m pretty settled on this fundamental need of personal, human-to-human relationships. And I think they often go overlooked. Even if money weren’t an object, I still envision we would stay focused on that. 

Do for One is included in the Philanthropy Roundtable’s Opportunity Playbook, where you can find more information about their impact and programming. If you are interested in helping to accelerate this organization’s impact, please contact Philanthropy Roundtable Program Director Esther Larson. 

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