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THE SPECIAL YEARS : 50 AND BEYOND: THE TIME OF YOUR LIFE : Volunteerism : 'There are a million things to do; you can take your pick'

May 04, 1989|SUSAN CHRISTIAN | Christian is a Los Angeles free-lance writer

As a child, George McDonald wanted to be a philanthropist when he grew up.

Today he chuckles at his boyhood goal. "I never made enough money for that," says McDonald, a former high school teacher. "So instead, I donate my services."

What he couldn't give in dollars he certainly has made up for in hours. Since retiring eight years ago, McDonald has worked tirelessly as a volunteer for the American Red Cross.

"I didn't want to just sit around the house," he says. "I find that when people do nothing, their minds soon follow."

McDonald, 70, a Baldwin Hills resident, puts his scholarly skills to use by giving presentations on earthquake preparedness to organizations and businesses. On a recent evening, he both entertained and informed members of the Los Angeles International Lions Club with a map of fault lines, a slide show and his cool wit.

He repeats his urgent message one to three times a week, depending on the mood of the earth's crust. "Whenever there's a tremor, the calls start coming in," McDonald says.

He is equally active in the Presbyterian Church--on local, state and national levels. "Before I retired, I didn't have to carry one of these," McDonald says, displaying his appointment-crammed date book.

Volunteerism runs in the family; McDonald's 67-year-old wife Lydia, a retired librarian, is a docent for the Los Angeles Public Library. "My mother did volunteer work for the YWCA, so I guess it's in my genes," she says

Three years ago, Lydia McDonald was giving a tour to 60 children when a devastating fire broke out in the Central Library. "We evacuated in pretty orderly fashion, considering they were fifth graders," she recalls.

George McDonald still dreams, though somewhat tongue-in-cheek, of striking it rich someday--though only to fulfill the idealism of his youth. "If I could somehow win $5 million, I'd give it to the church and to the Red Cross," he says. "Those are both marvelous organizations."

He has no patience for people who find petty excuses to hoard their resources. "I wanted to give something back to society, even though it hasn't always been good to me," says McDonald, who is black. "I grew up when society was much more segregated than it is today; life was hard. I could be bitter, but I choose not to be bitter.

"So when I hear someone say, 'I won't give to the Red Cross because they charged soldiers for cigarettes when I served in World War II,' I say, 'Let me tell you my story. When I served in World War II, (wounded) white soldiers were not given blood from black soldiers.' "

Without dedicated volunteers such as McDonald--retired or reaching retirement age--many nonprofit organizations could not exist. For instance, 95% of American Red Cross workers are volunteers, half of whom are 50 years old or over.

"Without senior citizens, we'd close our doors," says Jane O'Connor, director of Volunteer Services for the Braille Institute, a privately funded rehabilitation center for the blind.

"When I started working here 24 years ago, the bulk of our volunteers were housewives; today there aren't as many young people available because women work," O'Connor adds. "Three-quarters of our volunteers are senior citizens."

Sam Diamond, 69, of Sherman Oaks is a member of that majority. He works five mornings a week at the institute, either reading textbooks and periodicals into a tape recorder or assisting blind college students with their studies.

A sergeant in the Los Angeles Police Department from 1942 through 1955, Diamond retired from his import business five years ago. At first he occupied his just-freed time with his hobbies: macrame and hook rugs. "But you can only hang so much of that stuff on the walls," he notes.

So Diamond went hunting for "a way to be useful" and found the Braille Institute. "Working here is so rewarding," he says. "Volunteers will tell you they get as much out of it as do the people they help."

That they will. "It's a two-way street," says hospital volunteer Mary Gisbrecht, who retired from her job as a kindergarten teacher in 1985. "I love children so much, and I started to miss being around them; my grandchildren live in Houston. So I called Torrance Memorial (Hospital Medical Center) and asked if I could read to the children."

The hospital gladly took her up on her offer. Gisbrecht reads at the bedside of seriously ill children and baby-sits in the day-care center for not-so-seriously ill children whose parents can't stay home with them.

"After I retired, I thought, 'This is silly; I can't sit around twiddling my thumbs,' " she says.

Gisbrecht, a 60-year-old Rancho Palos Verdes resident, does not do much thumb-twiddling. She also involves herself in the Los Angeles County Music Center's Education Guild, which sponsors performing-arts programs in schools.

"I got a new car last June and I've already put 12,000 miles on it," Gisbrecht says with a laugh. "My husband keeps wondering when I'm going to slow down long enough for us to do some traveling."

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