I serve as an almoner, appointed to this voluntary position by the board of managers of the Havens Relief Fund Society. One day a landlord, responding to my letter concerning a tenant in his building, calls to ask, “What is an almoner?” My response is tentative. For me, the title, almoner, has a medieval ring to it, but I am not sure of its origin, so I do some research.

First, I consult my “Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary,” battered and dog-eared after years of use. I learn that the word “alms” can be traced back to the Greek word, “eleemon,” meaning merciful. In his “Dictionary of the English Language,” published in 1755, Samuel Johnson defines alms as “what is given gratuitously in relief of the poor,” and an “alms-giver” as “he that supports others by his charity.” His definition does not describe my situation, since the funds I dispense are not my own, but those of a generous and caring 19th century benefactor.

The “Oxford English Dictionary” is more helpful on the subject, defining almoner as “an official distributor of the alms of another….” Thus, in earlier times, kings and bishops had almoners who distributed charity on their behalf. In my case, I distribute alms on behalf of the Havens Relief Fund Society.

The results of my research: Respect for the tradition of alms-giving and pride in my service as a present-day almoner where I, along with 149 other almoners, identify New Yorkers experiencing temporary financial emergencies and strive to assist them. (We almoners are a diverse lot, coming from fields such as law, social work, health care, education and criminal justice.)

Our benefactor, Charles Gerard Havens, was born in Greenport, L.I., in 1808. At age 14, his family moved to New York City where he worked as a clerk in a real estate office. He later became a lawyer. Over the years, Mr. Havens invested wisely in real estate. He decided to use his wealth to help people in financial distress, believing that the vicissitudes of life could temporarily derail almost anyone of limited means, and that a modest financial grant at the right time might help set things right. To test his theory, he gave sums of money to five of his business associates, asking them to be on the lookout for such people. They carried out his wishes with enthusiasm and success.

In 1871, Mr. Havens established the Havens Relief Fund Society with a gift of $25,000. He served on the board of managers for 17 years. Upon his death in 1888, he left the bulk of his estate, about $1 million, to the Society.

When reviewing grant requests, I talk to intended beneficiaries and look at pay stubs of the employed and government forms of those on public assistance. These documents reveal very low incomes, with many applicants living on less than a $1,000 a month.

Grant decisions are made by almoners with dispatch and a minimum of paperwork. Beneficiaries are never told the source of the funds they receive, nor are they asked to repay the amount.

Mr. Havens was right on the mark! As I have come to learn, at a critical time, a modest grant—most of my grants are under $800—can make a huge difference in the lives of poor people, relieving a crisis situation, like keeping a family together with a roof over its head.

Here are examples of grants I have made as an almoner:

• A young mother is the sole provider for her two sisters and 3-year-old daughter. She rises at 4:30 a.m. each day to work in a coffee shop, often working a double shift, and does not return to her family until evening. On the death of her grandfather, who had adopted her, along with her sisters, she had to pay some of his debts. An $800 grant to cover her rent arrears.

• Twin 4-year-olds undergo heart transplants. A $300 grant to cover the fee for a family’s visa extension application to remain in the United States to continue medical treatment for their children.

• The death of a teenage boy from lymphoma. His pro bono lawyers, who were assisting the family on a housing matter at the time, wrote of him: “This young man touched many with his maturity and courageous spirit. Right up until the end of his life, his concerns remained focused on the well-being of his family after his passing.” A $496 grant for funeral expenses. (Many of the requests for assistance that I receive come from pro bono lawyers participating in Volunteers of Legal Service projects.)

• Children live with their disabled mother in a mold-ridden apartment which exacerbates the son’s severe asthma. A new apartment is found for the family. Grant of $251 to pay for the security deposit.

• Grandmother, who is sick, elderly and impoverished, has custody of a 15-year-old granddaughter and a 9-year-old great-granddaughter. She must spend the rent money on medical expenses after experiencing a heart attack. Grant of $424 to cover rent arrears.

• Beneficiary lives in supportive housing in Times Square for people suffering mental illness. He falls behind on rent when a glitch in the social security computer system causes a cessation of his payments. On his 12th visit to court, the order to show cause is marked, “last one,” by the judge. Eviction prevented with a grant of $543.

• $500 grant enables child to attend a school for autistic children.

• Grant of $100 resolves recipient’s student loan collection problem, enabling her to receive a $6,000 earned income tax credit which otherwise would have been intercepted by her student loan servicer.

• Recipient left Haiti in February 2010, as her prenatal hypertension had become far worse in the aftermath of the earthquake. Her daughter was born prematurely and placed in an incubator. Funds provided to extend visa so that child could continue to receive medical treatment.

• Recipient robbed when leaving bank with cash consisting of proceeds from her unemployment insurance benefits check. Grant of $162 to prevent eviction.

• Legally blind mother with two children who suffer from mental disabilities. In the view of the mother’s pro bono lawyers, without a grant, the family would be evicted and forced to enter the shelter system. Grant of $768.87 to prevent eviction.

Since becoming an almoner 19 years ago, I have made 655 grants to families and individuals totaling $472,391. I have come to learn a lot about the human condition, about human suffering, about human endurance. I am forever grateful to Charles Gerard Havens for providing me with the opportunity and financial means to provide immediate assistance to New Yorkers in need.

William J. Dean is executive director of Volunteers of Legal Service.