A passion for volunteerism. Experience at some of the planet's largest corporations. A coach to senior-level executives. Active-duty service in the U.S. Navy. A long run as a high school social studies teacher.
Bob Swanton has acquired a deep skill set over his 74 years. Above all, it is grounded in service to community and nation. And it's made him the model volunteer at the Church of the Holy Trinity homeless shelter.
For the past decade, the 37-year Carnegie Hill resident has proven a remarkably calming presence to the dispossessed men who stay as overnight guests in the basement of St. Christopher's House on East 88th Street.
“We're there to listen if they want to talk, and to share our thoughts, if asked, and to be a friendly face at the end of a long day – but we're not there to pry, and we take our cues from our guests,” Swanton said.
Offering healthy, high-quality food on a nightly basis to 12 to 15 hungry men, who often have poor diets or substance-abuse issues or both, is one of his breakthrough accomplishments, fellow volunteers say.
It happened like this: In mid-2017, Swanton was eating at the Dig Inn restaurant on Lexington Avenue and 87th Street, an eatery known for top-notch, farm-to-table food, when he noticed that the workers were in the process of discarding unused edibles.
Approaching the manager, he asked if the foodstuffs might be donated to the homeless. “Absolutely,” he was told. It turns out that Dig Inn has a policy of seeking to re-route excess food to places in the communities it serves where it's most in need.
So now, every night at around 10 p.m., two homeless men wheel a big shopping cart over to the restaurant to pick up the unsold food, which is promptly refrigerated and becomes the next night's meal
“From some of our guests, they're never eaten so well in their lives!” Swanton said.
Indeed, the offerings include sustainably grown or harvested foods like sea bass, quinoa, steak, chicken, fresh vegetables and a range of other locally farm-sourced products.
“Typically, when I hear a big idea, I immediately worry about the logistics, who's going to follow up on it, and how it will work,” said the Rev. John F. Beddingfield, who has served as rector of the Episcopalian church since 2015 and is himself a volunteer at the shelter.
“But with Bob, it's always, 'Don't worry about it, we'll take care of it, we'll make it happen,'” Beddingfield said. “And that's exactly the way it works out – he takes care of it, he makes it happen. He's got an idea, he runs with it. He accomplishes it.”
But he doesn't do it alone, Swanton is quick to point out. “It's a team effort in every sense of the word,” he says. Fifteen volunteers, led by Mark Roshkind, Holy Trinity's shelter site coordinator, each take a few nights each month and cover for each other as needed.
Still, Roshkind, who nominated Swanton for the OTTY, is clear-eyed about his role: “He's an irreplaceable volunteer at the site, and an invaluable asset to the faith-based community,” he said, one who is “truly representative” of the volunteer concept of “selfless service.”
Raised on Long Island and living on the Upper East Side since 1982, Swanton graduated from Holy Cross College in 1966, served in the Navy on a ship at sea and was stationed in Guantanamo Bay in the late 1960s. He taught high school in Levittown in the 1970s.
After studying for his master's from NYU in China during the Cultural Revolution, and then getting his MBA from Columbia Business School in 1980, he worked in human resources, first for Exxon and then for Merrill Lynch, in the 1980s.
By 1990, he'd set up his own consulting practice, Executive Dimensions, and flew around the world coaching corporate clients in Europe and Asia on leadership skills until his retirement three years ago.
Yet volunteerism was a constant throughout his long career in business, and he's been donating his time and services since becoming a board member at Covenant House and working to protect the city's young runaways in the early 1980s.
Starting some 20 years ago, Swanton began pitching in at Yorkville's homeless shelters, aiding the destitute at St. Stephen of Hungary on East 82nd Street, and then Our Lady of Good Counsel on East 90th Street, before moving to Holy Trinity in 2010.
What motivates that level of giving? “I felt as I was pretty fortunate, I wanted to be of assistance to those who were less fortunate,” he said.
Typically, he'll commit to a 6:30 p.m. to 6:30 a.m. volunteer shift two or three times a month – providing hot meals, socks, a toothbrush, film screenings and a safe and comfortable refuge for the night – and he'll sleep on the premises and see the men off in the morning.
“He's nice and low-key, which is what helps our shelter guests relate, but at the same time, he's fully present and engaged,” said Erlinda Brent, the church's parish secretary. “And he's super-dependable.”
Is it tough to aid so many troubled men? Does he ever get discouraged? And what keeps him going?
“Actually, working with them can be quite inspiring,” Swanton said. “These men have for the most part been born into poverty, have had very little education and can't afford a room of their own. Many of them are also alone without family support.
“Despite these obstacles, they're trying to get their life back in order,” he added. “Their fortitude is impressive. It makes me appreciate what I have, and the thought that I might be of some help is what keeps me doing it.”