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Givers : In Growing Numbers, County Residents Are Volunteering Their Time to Help Others

August 31, 1989|PATRICK MOTT | Patrick Mott is a regular contributor to Orange County Life.

In the not-so-distant past, volunteerism meant being a den mother.

It meant manning the booth at the church bake sale for an hour on Sunday, or coaching Little League or helping out with the costumes for the school Christmas play.

It was something done by people with a lot of time on their hands, something to fill an otherwise uneventful day, a substitute for afternoon soap operas. And it was something that, for the most part, was not done by people sprinting down the career track.

How, then, to explain Don Simmons, a 33-year-old college professor from Huntington Beach who has probably done--and is doing--more volunteer work than Gandhi? Or Todd McKnight of Corona del Mar, at age 23 the head of his own real estate development firm, who coaches youth soccer, serves as a Big Brother and occupies a spot on the board of his local Girls Club? Or Kathy Scott of Placentia, a victim of a rare, stroke-like disease who, as a result, cannot drive, but regularly takes the bus to Santa Ana to work with elderly hospital patients?

The answer, in part, is that the children of the "Me Generation" have begun to develop a stronger social conscience. And volunteering, in Orange County and throughout the country, has entered a new day. More people than ever before--of nearly all ages and from nearly all social and business strata--are working somewhere, at some time, for free. They are staffing day-care centers, counseling pregnant teens, teaching reading to adults, participating in programs at senior centers, drug treatment facilities and, yes, Scouting and Little League.

Last year, about 15,000 of them--an increase of approximately 25% over 1987--were placed in volunteer positions in an estimated 600 nonprofit social, charitable and arts organizations around the county through the Volunteer Center of Orange County, a clearinghouse for volunteer workers.

"We're really getting a lot more visibility these days," said Carol Stone, executive director of the center. "And people have always wanted to volunteer. They don't want to sit by the boob tube. They want to reach out and help others. It's part of human nature, but sometimes they just didn't know how to go about it.

"Sociologists would probably say we're moving back to a different place from the 'Me Generation,' into a period when we want to help one another. A lot of young people were raised in the '70s to take the money jobs, but now they're finding that other things are more important: their family, their community, making sure everybody has a decent life."

The catalyst, Stone said, was "more publicity, both nationally and locally, about being involved. People are hearing about it and thinking about it more--President Bush and his 'thousand points of light,' opportunity columns in newspapers. And CEOs are encouraging people in their businesses to volunteer. There's just a lot more visibility."

And, Stone said, the realization has set in, after the social services cutbacks of the Reagan years, that needed jobs will not be done unless by volunteers. Still, she added, such needs alone have not been the ultimate spur to the new wave of volunteering.

"We've learned that volunteers can really enhance an organization that has had its financial resources cut," Stone said. "That's a large part of the reason (more people are volunteering), but it's not the only reason. If society were not ready to do this kind of thing, I don't think people would be doing it. People can do miracles that we once thought only money could do. That's very exciting."

And, it appears, volunteering begets volunteering. Many people, like Todd McKnight, find themselves drawn to multiple volunteer jobs.

"The three organizations I'm with are entirely different in what I give and in what I get back from them," said McKnight, who moved to Corona del Mar from Dallas three years ago. "I was really concerned about the time commitment, but I find that I really look forward to all three activities. The hours do accumulate, but I don't look at them as taking hours out of my day. They return much more."

Volunteering, for Kathy Scott, grew out of frustration with dealing with the effects of her disease as well as what she said was the need to be useful. A former telephone operator service representative, Scott was struck by a stroke-like brain condition called arterial venous malformation in 1969. It left her paralyzed on one side of her body and severely limited her speech.

Today, after recovering nearly all of her speech and mobility through rehabilitation, she regularly works with patients at Western Medical Center/Bartlett, an acute and rehabilitative care facility for the elderly in Santa Ana.

"I was bored," she said. "I called two different hospitals and told them I'd like to be a volunteer, but they said no, they had enough. Then I took the bus over here (to Western Med/Bartlett) and saw the handicapped people and in five minutes I said yes, I wanted to work here."

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