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Good Jobs but No Pay : Deficit-Ridden City Saves Money, Fills Gaps With Volunteers


NORWALK — Doris Carter could not find the job she really wanted, so the city let her create one. Now she spends four hours a week helping children read.

Katherine Portillo, who wants to become a police officer, spends part of her 15-hour work week writing tickets for motorists.

And, using his experience as a graphic designer, student Ed Madinya designed the logo for the new Norwalk Arts and Sports Complex.

Their perks include flexible hours and a nice work environment. The only catch is that the jobs don't pay.

The deficit-ridden city is saving money and filling gaps in its depleted job force with volunteers.

Modeled after a 10-year-old program in the Northern California city of Sunnyvale, the Norwalk volunteer service has 86 workers, coordinator Gary DiCorpo said. More than 130 volunteers have worked for the city since the program began July 1.

"Our goal was to bring in 100 volunteers in one year, and we are way ahead of that," DiCorpo said.

Volunteers worked 389 hours in August, 360 hours in September, 859 hours in October, and 521 hours in November. DiCorpo said more volunteers than usual worked in October during the city's Halloween parade and carnival. In November, the opening of the sports complex accounted for the increase.

Carter said she volunteered because she wants to teach children that it is fun to read. She knew that other cities run literacy programs, but Norwalk did not have one. When she approached the city about starting one, officials were delighted.

The city donated money for books of short stories, which the children take turns reading aloud.

Carter, who works full-time as a customer service supervisor for a food distribution company, was surprised at the response from the community for the eight-week program. She has 24 children and more on a waiting list.

"The kids I work with are really bright, and they enjoy reading with their peers," she said. "My determination is that they will want to read and excel on their own."

Interested in a career in law enforcement, Portillo works 6 to 15 hours a week for the city as a volunteer reserve officer. The city contracts with the Sheriff's Department to patrol city streets but also has a crew of reserve officers who support the deputies.

"This is giving me good experience, something I don't have a lot of right now," she said. In addition to writing tickets, she helps dispatch reserve officers and types manuals and reports.

Portillo recently applied for a job as an officer with the Los Angeles Police Department. "I included this (volunteer experience) on my application," she said.

Madinya, who has about four semesters remaining until graduation from Cal State Long Beach, said he tried for months to find an internship with a company where he could use his skills as a graphic designer. When that failed, he volunteered to design a logo for the new Norwalk Arts and Sports Complex. City officials plan to use the logo on sports complex stationery.

He said he is treating the volunteer position like an internship. "After this exposure, and with meeting a lot of people and networking through this, I will get my foot more in the door," he said. "I'm very lucky to have this job."

DiCorpo said the volunteers represent a diverse group. About a fourth of the participants are college students looking for practical experience. The rest are high school students, senior citizens and people trying to get back into the work force.

The city's Volunteer Services office has a book listing open positions. The jobs range from assistant draftsperson to arts assistant with the Recreation Department. Volunteers are asked to make a commitment to work at least three months.

"At the end of three months, we ask if they would like to do something else," DiCorpo said. "And we're really flexible about the hours and days they can work. We can tailor the position to meet the needs of the person."

Volunteers say they are happy to have the opportunity to work, but some city employees are concerned that the free labor will cost city employees their jobs.

"The union has a concern that the volunteers are masking a real need for city workers," said William Clark, president of the Norwalk Employees Union. The city has 186 full-time and 150 part-time employees. In July, 21 city employees, including Clark, were laid off.

A few weeks later, Clark and nine others got their jobs back. But employees agreed to a 5% pay cut and a 5% reduction in work hours. They also gave up a 4.5% cost-of-living increase that would have been effective July 1 and another that was scheduled for Jan. 3. The city eliminated seven unfilled jobs.

"The residents want a high level of services, and the city is able to provide those services in the short term basis through the use of volunteers," Clark said. But he does not think the program is the long-term solution to Norwalk's fiscal problems.

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