Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - December 14, 2012

Power of the people

Year-round volunteers are the unsung heroes of local nonprofits

by photos Veronica Weber / text Pierre Bienaime

All year long — not just during the holiday season — volunteers quietly work behind the scenes, providing nonprofit organizations with the fuel to keep them running.

Their jobs are as varied as giving rides to seniors, planting native seedlings in the baylands and reading stories to underprivileged preschool kids. The volunteers come in every stripe, including college students, recently retired individuals and busy professionals.

Asked why they spend their time helping people they don't know, the volunteers attest to the personal rewards, whether enjoyed in the moment or viewed in the context of the greater mission they strive toward.

Without the quiet yet evergreen commitments of volunteers, organization staff say, Palo Alto would not be such a vibrant, caring and noble-minded community.

Save The Bay

On a recent Saturday, Darcey Forbes of Sunnyvale was planting native flora during her fifth volunteer outing with the nonprofit Save The Bay.

"I find it cathartic to come out and give back to the community. It's nice to know you did something productive on a Saturday."

"Every time I come out I get a bit of an education. The mustard and fennel plants — I didn't know that they weren't indigenous to the area. They take over and don't protect the native animals," Forbes said.

Save The Bay relies on around 5,000 volunteers each year who put in roughly 20,000 man hours to protect and restore the San Francisco Bay's wetlands.

Last Saturday, Jack States, a Save The Bay restoration project specialist, spoke to the few dozen volunteers who'd turned out to help replant the baylands. He pointed to an image published years ago in the Oakland Tribune.

"Save The Bay was founded in 1961 because of this picture right here," he said, holding a projection made by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers of what the San Francisco Bay could look like — what it could be reduced to — by 2020. Above the image ran the words: "Bay or River?"

Since the Gold Rush, 90 percent of the bay's wetlands have been lost to development and agriculture. The baylands are home to endangered animals.

The volunteers plant native flora where these animals thrive. Within a few short hours, 600 new plants lined the raised levee where many animals would seek refuge in the event of a storm.

"It's interesting to give back, especially in a place you live," said Miranda Riviera, a high school student from San Jose. "I want to come back and see if these plants get bigger, if it actually worked."

10 Books A Home

Suzanne Delaney has been reading books to a young girl since May as a volunteer with 10 Books A Home, an organization strives to build early literacy by pairing volunteers with young underprivileged kids living in East Palo Alto and East Menlo Park.

One recent book told the story of a boy and a big green monster who became friends.

"She likes books that focus on friendships," Delaney said of her student.

Volunteers like Delaney visit kids in their homes on a weekly basis, ideally over the two-year span of a child's eligibility in the program (ages 3 and 4).

Paul Thiebaut III, founder of 10 Books A Home, recently related the satisfaction of nurturing the progress in both a child's reading ability and engagement with books. He spoke with the cadence of a slam poet.

"In almost anything we do, we get to experience the hour hand on the clock. If you stare at it, it never moves," Thiebaut said.

"Here, you get to see every single second it's moving. It blows my mind how such a simple act can have such a profound influence," he added, referencing the 40 minutes a week volunteers spend with the children.

A few feet from the desk of his combined office/residence, a pair of tall racks stood packed with around 2,000 children's books. From this pool, volunteers bring the ones they think their students will be happiest to add to their growing library.

Delaney said engaging children with storybooks can have a real impact.

"I do believe in trying to get children ahead in education. Children of less fortunate backgrounds are behind when they start school and they end up staying that way," she said.

Stanford Blood Center

It takes around 150 trained volunteers to keep the work of the Stanford Blood Center pumping year-round.

"We use volunteers at all three of the centers and out on the blood drives," said Tessa Moore, the organization's volunteer services manager, referencing the center's three sites — Palo Alto, Mountain View and Menlo Park — and as many as five blood drives daily in the community, from San Mateo and south San Jose.

"Most of our volunteer positions involve interacting with our blood donors at the canteen.

"After somebody has donated blood we don't let them leave immediately because even though it's rare, sometimes people feel faint or dizzy," she said.

Volunteers make for a varied group: The youngest are 14 — high schoolers who might be thinking of careers in the medical field. A few are in their early 90s. Many also give blood.

Jennifer Harris, a retired schoolteacher who has donated blood 120 times, is one such volunteer.

"I've been the regular Friday afternoon person for about nine years," Harris said. As she spoke, she was knitting a wool sweater for her daughter on the East Coast. Much of her work allows her to keep her knitting needles in hand.

"My job is to serve juice and refreshments to donors, to try and make sure they stay 15 minutes. If a reaction is going to happen, it does within that time," she said.

She welcomed recent donors to a table laid out with cookies, pretzels, apples and carrots. She marked their cups with the hour and minute at which 15 minutes would elapse. As they left, she thanked them.

Harris estimated that 5 percent of the eligible blood-giving population actually does so. While there are efforts to reach the rest of that demographic, it is by giving positive reinforcement to existing donors that volunteers like her do their part, she said.

Friends of the Palo Alto Library

Scattered across the Cubberley Community Center, volunteers with the Friends of the Palo Alto Library sort, price and shelve thousands of donated books year-round. In each of the nonprofit's three portable units at the center, men and women work with a deadline in mind: a hugely popular monthly sale that raises funds for the Palo Alto Library.

Most of these volunteers are of retirement age, seniors who put their love of books into practice for several hours a week.

"This is the start of our process here," said Miriam Landesman, a 10-year volunteer. "We get boxes of books that have already been sorted in the main room and identified as candidates for the children's books room. Then they come to us and we sort them by section — for example, chapter books, picture books, activity books, beginning readers."

A level of organization worthy of any bookstore is important to garner the most sales. In the fantasy and science fiction corner of the portable, green laminated labels attested to the continuing popularity of certain series: Brian Jacques' Redwall, R.L. Stine's Goosebumps, and of course, a bookcase overrun with tomes about a certain Harry Potter.

"Books meant for second-graders sell like crazy. Parents are so excited that their kids are actually reading books on their own," said Pat Worthington, manager of the children's section. The Friends, no stranger to the model of supply and demand, will price these books on the higher side.

Nancy Olson is a veteran at the organization, once serving as its president. She's volunteered for nearly 30 years.

"This is a great crew to work with; it's a really wonderful team," Olson said. "It really excites me to have families lined up to come in to buy books, and their kids are begging for them instead of candy or playing some electronic game."

Lines for the children's books portable often stretch out to the street.

In recent years, book donations have roughly doubled, Worthington said.

Olson pointed to her domain: the children's nonfiction section. It used to take up only two bookcases. Now it claims multiple makeshift aisles on one side of the portable and abounds with historical picture books and topical science books.

"I think we have more visibility now. People think of us when their kids go to college and they're clearing out," Olson said.

Over at the main portable a few hundred yards away, Scottie Zimmerman arranged a group of bookcases of classics and modern literature to her liking.

"If you get a section, you're king!" she laughed. "I can do anything I want. Eudora Welty is a writer for whom I have great affection. She doesn't sell like hotcakes, but I keep her books no matter what."

Avenidas

Barb Zimmer drives a small group of seniors to the Safeway in Midtown Palo Alto each week. As a volunteer for the nonprofit Avenidas' transportation program, Zimmer helps seniors stay active and independent by getting them out into the community.

"I enjoy the people aspect of it," Zimmer said. "I also have Parkinson's disease and a problem with my voice. The more I talk, the better it is for me. I get that kind of benefit from it.

"It's a minimal time commitment and very rewarding. People really appreciate what you allow them to do," she said.

Well beyond being an errand to restock one's kitchen cupboards, these outings carry a social function to break up the days that might otherwise prove lonesome for seniors.

"They see the same people each week," said Jyllian Halliburton, volunteer program manager at Avenidas. "They've known them for years, in some cases."

The center's transportation services are two-fold. Besides the weekly outings to the grocery store, the RoadRunners program offers individual rides to seniors anywhere within a 10-mile radius of Palo Alto, said Phil Endliss, transportation coordinator at Avenidas. "That means you can get from the northern end of San Carlos all the way to Sunnyvale."

"Whether it's to go to a beauty salon, see friends, go to a senior center or the library, seniors citizens are just out there being nice, active members of the community. Volunteers help give them that ability," he said.

But the need for volunteers is growing. Avenidas' transportation services are seeing a rise in demand without the new volunteers to meet it. With just 18 drivers, the center coordinates grocery store runs on some, but not all, days of the week.

Staff Photographer Veronica Weber can be emailed at vweber@paweekly.com; Editorial Intern Pierre Bienaime can be emailed at pbienaime@paweekly.com.

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