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Good Deeds and Derring-Do : Rugged New Wave of Volunteers Actively Fights Crime, Grime as Funds Dwindle


Volunteerism used to mean Scoutmasters teaching young boys to tie a square knot, and retirees staffing the information desk at the library.

No more. Today's volunteers are people such as Victoria McGarrity, an energetic 22-year-old marketing assistant whose idea of a fun Friday night has nothing to do with nightclubs and A-list parties. The Woodland Hills woman would rather be hiding in a car with a pair of binoculars, spying on drug dealers.

The new generation of volunteers is a rugged bunch, like Lefty Blasco, a 75-year-old former medical equipment salesman who helped reclaim paint-spattered Panorama City from the taggers. He doesn't worry about getting shot for erasing graffiti, even though his car was dented by one angry tagger.

To the vandals who drive by and yell at him to "leave that alone," he has a simple response: "Baloney to you."

Two forces have combined to create this new style of gritty, hard-nosed volunteerism in Los Angeles and elsewhere, experts say.

One is the continuing shortage of government funding that once paid for everything from animal control to ship inspections, with enough left over to dream up some new service to offer taxpayers.

The other is the realization that it's no longer enough to pay taxes and expect a government agency to take care of the problem. Increasingly, average citizens are stepping up to put their free time and, occasionally, even their safety on the line.

"I do it for the thrill of it," explained McGarrity. "It's rewarding when you catch someone."

Now, the mayor's executive director of the new Volunteer Bureau is gearing up to push volunteerism into even newer frontiers. Karen Oleon Wagener said the city already has 20,000 volunteers--double the number of five years ago--doing everything from riding in mounted patrols at Elysian Park to diving for evidence in criminal cases at the Port of Los Angeles.


A 1994 report by the Mayor's Task Force on Volunteerism said the efforts of people like Blasco and McGarrity save the city $30 million each year. Nongovernment workers contribute labor to the Bureau of Street Maintenance equivalent to 165 full-time employees.

Wagener, 50, a former Peace Corps executive who came to the Volunteer Bureau in December, hopes to use volunteers to attack problems as they develop, rather than allowing them to fester. One of her first ideas: use volunteers to pick up packs of feral dogs that are making life miserable for some suburbanites.

"The mayor's goal is to fill all the seats at Dodger Stadium with volunteers," said Wagener.

"My commitment is that all volunteers have useful, rewarding jobs that make sense."

An example of the economics driving the ever-increasing use of volunteers is the situation at the port. Six years ago, the Los Angeles Port Police had a 12-member dive team. As time went on, four left and were not replaced.

The port police recruited volunteer commercial divers, said Lt. Martin Renteria. After training them in search techniques, the police turned the volunteers loose in the water, where they have searched the hulls of vessels for drugs.

The same pattern has been repeated in department after department. The Los Angeles Police Department has 2,000 volunteers, not counting reserve officers. In the Van Nuys Division alone, they assist in videotaping homicide scenes, counseling battered women, and inputting the names of arrestees in law enforcement computers.

There are two volunteer surveillance teams. "We put them on rooftops, looking over areas of thefts and other crimes," said Sgt. Bob Shallenberger.

One unusual assignment was to stop a rash of break-ins at a Valley golf course. An intrepid volunteer spent several hours on top of a small building, hidden in a cardboard box, watching the parking lot.

"It was kind of like an oven," said a sympathetic Shallenberger. The sweaty work paid off with an arrest.

Helping out at the local school used to mean helping out in your child's classroom. At Monlux Elementary School in North Hollywood, volunteers run the Homework Club after school, shelve books in the school library, mow the lawn and tend the school's cactus garden. And that's not all.

After the school was hit by three break-ins at the beginning of the year, causing $10,000 in damage, a local alarm company installed high-tech motion detectors in each classroom.

Another group contributed $5,500 for metal grates to protect classroom windows. Since these measures were taken, there has been only one break-in, at the cafeteria, which has no motion detectors.

Without all the support, "I don't think the children would succeed as well as they do," said Diane Seligson, the coordinator of the Math, Science and Technical Magnet at Monlux.

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