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Hearts of L.A. / How the Quake Rocked Our Spirits and Changed Our Lives : BINDING THE WOUNDS : 'I've always been a volunteer.'

January 30, 1994|Wendy Cottam | Cottam is an English teacher at Belmont High School in downtown Los Angeles. After Cottam, a lifelong volunteer, cleaned up the quake damage in her Van Nuys home, she and three colleagues organized "Teachers Without Walls," an outdoor school in a Sherman Oaks park filled with displaced quake victims. and

I've always been a volunteer. I was a Candy Striper at 15 at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York. I was the Library Lady at Sloan Kettering as an adult. It's the fabric of my life, a natural extension of teaching.

So as I saw Hazeltine Park filling with more and more children seemingly lost, bewildered, shattered, I thought: Let's do something; let's start a school. I called a few fellow teachers and they said yes.

We didn't have any supplies, so I called Office Depot near my neighborhood. They didn't even stop a heartbeat. "What do you need?" the manager asked. I took crayons, notebooks, golf pencils that were already sharpened, pens and markers. I also had a couple of easels and boards of my own.

On Thursday, we went over to a pavilion where children were playing and wrote a sign, "LAUSD Volunteer Teachers Without Walls. School Is Open" on an easel. My ESL teacher wrote it in Spanish. A crowd of parents and children formed. First the parents checked us out to see if we looked legitimate, I think. And then the little ones, even diaper age appeared, all the way through high school. They sat down at the table with their little hands folded--all sizes, shapes and ages--parents behind them ready to go. It was the most exciting thing.

First day we had between maybe 35 kids. With the little kids we sang and colored. They drew pictures of their homes and taped them up on a nearby wall. It became our memory wall.

With the older children, we did some writing and math assignments. They also drew--pictures of the freeways that fell down and their houses. Interestingly, they drew houses with children inside, sort of floating around, with parents on the outside, without hands, symbolizing that the parents could not help them, I believe.

The kids were hungry to learn. They were so thrilled. They said to me, "We love our teacher. We love our school."

We were constantly interrupted by tremors, and the kids grasped at any adult. I must have had three clinging to me. Some just scooted back to their little camps or tents.

Then the parents started coming, so we started a group where the parents were being taught to write a journal in Spanish, a history of what happened.

We were there just two days, before we had to go back to our own school, but emotionally, it was amazing. We really bonded with the children and the families.

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