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LOCAL HERO

A Woman With a Knack for Matching Passions and Needs

July 17, 1996|LIBBY SLATE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

On the wall of Angela Edwards' office is a poster with pink roses and a caption that reads, "Volunteers add that special touch."

Edwards should know. For the past four years she has been director of the West Los Angeles branch of the Volunteer Center, an organization whose chief mission is to place volunteers with nonprofit agencies throughout Los Angeles County. She matches at least 100 volunteers each month--more often, twice that figure--with one of 500 agencies covering such categories as animals, AIDS, legal services, parks and recreation, religion, social services, theater and women's services.

In her interviewing room, Edwards, a sixtysomething mother of two daughters and grandmother of four, works from a brown file box of index cards with information about each agency. If a prospective volunteer is uncertain what type of work to choose, she asks questions to determine where the candidate's interests lie.

"I tell people, 'Focus on your heart, what your passion is, what you'd like to make a difference in,' " she says. "Don't focus on, 'Oh, I want to be a good person, so I guess I'd better help the homeless.' If everyone did what they wanted to do, there wouldn't be the need there is in the world."

Agencies serving the homeless are among the most popular requests, topped only by help for children who are abused, abandoned or neglected and the environment. Edwards places volunteers as young as 5, who must be accompanied by an adult. And she is a firm advocate of volunteering as a family. "I believe if you start someone young, it builds a strong foundation to learn to share and care," she says. "That's what's missing in the world today."

One whose family has been inspired by Edwards is Brentwood attorney Myrna Morganstern, who with her husband, attorney Russell Frackman, son Steven, 13, and daughter Abby, 11, work at the downtown Los Angeles Union Rescue Mission on holidays, helping to prepare and serve meals.

"We've enjoyed this so much we want to go on regular days, too," says Morganstern, who came to the Volunteer Center last summer.

"Doing this has removed the aura of strangeness around street people for my children--they see they're just people who have fallen on hard times," she adds. "It's the one thing we do that pleases everybody in the family. My husband doesn't even go into the kitchen at home."

Edwards also has placed volunteers who have mental or physical disabilities. "It just takes a little more thought," she says. "It's very important for them to feel productive. Everybody can do something--working in the Ballona Wetlands, working in homeless shelters handing out food, working in an office doing mailings."

Edwards gets paid for a 37.5-hour workweek, but is at the office several hours more and also makes site visits to establish personal connections with the agencies. She has the help of one volunteer 12 to 16 hours a week, and has the summer assistance of a high school student. But the rest of the time she does all the administrative and secretarial work herself.

Edwards' effervescence belies a past that might have cast her as a recipient rather than a provider of aid. When her husband abandoned her and her two young daughters, she learned to drive and worked in a laundry, then signed on at the Prudential Insurance Company, where she had worked before her marriage. She remained a single mother, staying with Prudential until 1987, when she left rather than be transferred to New Jersey.

She found work with the Volunteer Center's Foster Grandparents program and then its Senior Companion program before taking her current position. As director, she works at volunteer fairs, makes speeches and distributes fliers. One weekend a month she works as manager of the Ronald McDonald House in Hollywood. In September, she becomes vice president of the local Kiwanis chapter.

"Angela's a terrific person, exceedingly helpful to me," says Kay Ginsberg, program manager for Jewish Elder Care and Project Caring in Los Angeles, with whom Edwards has placed about 35 volunteers. "She has a way of assessing people, finding out what their needs are. Ninety-nine percent of the people she's sent to me have been excellent. They seem to be prepared and knowledgeable about the program before they arrive. That saves me a lot of time. And she's a great resource in terms of what's going on in the community."

Adds Zandra Stanley, education and volunteer coordinator for the George C. Page Museum of La Brea Discoveries in Los Angeles, "We need a special kind of volunteer, who can give tours and take time to learn about the Ice Age if they don't have knowledge of it. I appreciate Angela coming out for a site visit and then helping me find the right kind of people. Today she sent me a man who is fluent in Spanish, which is a tremendous advantage with our diversity. She takes the time, and she's very caring."

Sums up Edwards: "I'm the connector. That's the excitement for me. If I can connect the perfect match, help people do what they want to do, that's my joy."

* This occasional column tells the stories of the unsung heroes of Southern California, people of all ages and vocations and avocations, whose dedication as volunteers or on the job makes life better for the people they encounter. Reader suggestions are welcome and may be sent to Local Hero Editor, Life & Style, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053.

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