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'If It Wasn't for Volunteers, This Agency Couldn't Survive'

From nurses to handymen, nonprofit agencies talk about the huge range of volunteered services they seek.

May 03, 1997|Interviews by James Blair, For The Times

CAROL OKEN Marketing director, TreePeople, Los Angeles

Our mission is to bring trees and people together to make Los Angeles a better place to live. We generally use volunteers to help us plant and care for trees in neighborhoods, on school campuses and in the local mountains. We also use volunteers at Coldwater Canyon Park, where we are on a long-term lease with the City of Los Angeles. It has 44 acres, trails, a tree nursery and organic gardens. We need volunteers to help us maintain the park and all these activities.

A lot of times, volunteers come to us in groups--corporate groups, families, Boy and Girl Scouts--generally looking to do a work project like trail maintenance, repairs, cleanup or watering. We also use people for particular expertise--computer work, graphics, carpentry.

There is a certain amount of expense that the organization assumes up front in order to be involved with volunteers. I think there is a point of diminishing return when you spend time, money and energy to train them and then they don't come back a second time or don't assume any kind of leadership position.


Volunteer coordinator, Ward AME Church, Los Angeles

I am a volunteer myself. I worked 30 years in data processing and when I retired from that job, I told myself I wouldn't work again unless it was as a volunteer. I also volunteer with the American Red Cross, with the Alzheimer's Assn., with the Music Center downtown.

At the moment, the one big program that we're working on is a free health center for indigents, the homeless or people with very low incomes. We have a doctor coming from a medical group in Montrose whose members have each dedicated 25 hours per week to volunteer. We're going to provide everything else. So we'll need volunteer nurses and [other medical professionals]. We do have a nursing staff here at the church which we intend to use.

A good and effective volunteer in this environment would have to be a Christian. They would have to be dedicated and reliable.


Executive director, Harbor Interfaith Shelter, San Pedro

Harbor Interfaith provides services to homeless and working poor families in the South Bay area of Los Angeles. Volunteerism is the backbone of our agency. We have close to 150, from the board of directors, who are all volunteers, to our auxiliary that helps raise funds to the volunteers who distribute groceries, answer telephone calls, sweep floors and do whatever needs to be done to keep this organization going.

What we're looking for is someone with compassion and a big heart and, being that we're open primarily during working hours, someone who is either retired or has a flexible schedule. We could always use a volunteer handyman because it's a drain on the agency every time we have to have something fixed. We need volunteers to read to our children at the shelter, to teach them crafts, art projects and help them with their homework.

Because funding is so competitive right now, most organizations cannot operate without volunteers with an ongoing commitment. But to say that will solve the funding cutbacks is ludicrous. It won't solve the dilemma of not having enough funds to operate agencies that provide services to the needy.


Associate director, Para Los Nios, Los Angeles

Para Los Nios is a comprehensive social service agency that serves the families of the central downtown area and Skid Row. We have an infant center, a preschool and after-school programs in about 5 or 6 schools. We have an adolescent program. We have a family crisis center and other programs throughout the community, dealing with family needs. If it wasn't for volunteers, an agency like Para Los Nios could not really survive.

Unfortunately, because of concern about possible child abuse, for a volunteer to work regularly in a child care center, he or she has to be fingerprinted. The cost is about $70 to $80. Most volunteers are not willing to pay that and the agency cannot afford to pay it for them. Some are retired people at home on a fixed income, so they get discouraged.

Each parent of a child enrolled in our program volunteers four hours a month, helping the teachers and doing other things. [Because of the small amount of time] they don't have to go through the security check. Even if they're illiterate and can't help to read books or to write, there's a lot of things they can do that give them some sense of responsibility and being part of the program.

When I saw President Clinton and all these politicians and the media taking hold of this, my only [thought] was "God, please help us." Maybe people will see this and will forget about all this nonsense about Democrats and Republicans and [say] maybe it is time for us to put all this aside and really act like human beings.

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