By REBECCA ISENHART
LATHAM — Niskayuna High School tennis players and their families did some quality off-the-court bonding Dec. 13 at the Regional Food Bank of Northeastern NY. Dwarfed by floor-to-ceiling shelves of boxes, and often dodging palettes of donations being moved about the facility, six players from three different Niskayuna tennis teams chatted and laughed as they packed pet supplies into cardboard containers.
Nick Lau, a senior at Niskayuna High School, will be captain of the varsity tennis team when the season starts in the spring. He initially became interested in volunteering at the food bank as part of a service requirement for the National Honor Society, but quickly saw an opportunity for something more.
“Team bonding is always a good thing,” he said. “It helps us out in the season.”
Plus, stacking boxes is a lot more fun with friends and family. That’s why, when Lau volunteered for the first time in April, he invited his parents, his sister, Christina, who’s on the girls varsity tennis team, and several of his teammates.
Varsity player Zach Handelman, a junior, said he originally joined Lau in April for the first volunteering excursion out of a sense of obligation.
“The first time, I was a little reluctant to come,” he said. But ultimately, team loyalty won out.
“I wanted to come and support Nick,” he said.
He ended up genuinely enjoying himself, and missing the second trip was out of the question.
Handelman said he hoped the positive experiences the small group had would inspire other teammates to join in on future outings.
“If we can just get people to come once, they’ll start coming more often,” he said. “It doesn’t take a lot of time out of my schedule. It’s only three hours, and it’s fun.”
Handelman added that the team bonding aspect of working at the food bank would be a huge benefit for the team this year, since a big chunk of last year’s group graduated in 2014.
M.E. Mazur, volunteer coordinator at the food bank, took a brief break from directing traffic in the warehouse to describe the impact the volunteers made.
She said it’s important to recognize that the food bank provides a lot more than food to the organizations it serves, including paper products, diapers, baby items, housewares and — as the volunteers learned that Saturday — pet supplies.
“Food stamps don’t cover the cost of toilet paper or toothpaste,” Mazur said. “That stuff is pricey.”
Providing expensive items like those frees up money for people to pay for necessities like heat, rent and groceries when things are tight.
Before dashing off to find more boxes, Mazur noted that among the 23 counties served by the food bank are several that people might not think of as needy places.
“People need help everywhere, especially since the economy tanked,” she said.
She said in places like Saratoga or Niskayuna, there’s a perceived affluence that can keep people from getting the help they need.
“The thing about hunger is you can’t tell by looking at someone who has and who has not,” she said.
The volunteers certainly seemed to comprehend the gravity of their contribution, even close to home.
“Niskayuna is always stereotyped as a wealthy, suburban area,” Lau said. “I’m sure [need] exists. I know it’s there.”
He said even after tennis season is over and National Honor Society duties are behind him, he’ll continue to volunteer and encourage others to do the same.
“I would like to do this all my life, to be honest,” Lau said.