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Seeing Man’s Humanity to Man For a Change

Reporters see much of the grim side of life. We see murders, ghastly accidents, and an unending succession of rogues, criminals and con artists.

But every now and then the skein is broken. Some assignments put reporters in touch with the nobler aspects of humanity. And I just came off a two-week assignment for The Times that had that salubrious effect.

I was among a group of reporters tapped to interview persons for the “Voices of Charity” series currently running in The Times. Every day between Thanksgiving and Christmas there is a profile and photo of an Orange County person active in some aspect of charity.

My assignment was to interview seven people for the series. Each turned out to be a warmly memorable experience.

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Michael Kang made me realize the strength of family values. Kang, 28, co-owns the very successful Five Feet and Five Feet Too restaurants in Laguna Beach and Newport Beach, respectively. He also is a volunteer in a street-person charity, the Someone Cares Soup Kitchen in Costa Mesa. I wondered why someone so young--in the midst of a busy business career--would become dedicated to charity work. Kang’s response: “My grandparents always taught me that you have to give it back where you make it.”

Ray C. Halvert, 73, gave me an insight to how exposure to charitable work can open one’s eyes. Halvert’s efforts launched the new South County charity called Saddleback Community Outreach. And how did he get involved? “I started working with a charity group at my church,” he said. “I soon realized that the problem was too big for just one church.”

Orange County Clerk Gary Granville, 62, is himself a former newspaperman. During an interview in his office, I enjoyed hearing some of his reminiscences about working on the Pilot in Costa Mesa. But my biggest remembrance of Granville was seeing the look on his face as he described the happiness he felt last year as a Salvation Army volunteer bell ringer. “If you want to see the real faces of Christmas, do something like that,” Granville said.

Lilia Margarita Serio Powell, 42, a refugee from Communist Cuba, now works to help minority students qualify for college and make it through to graduation. I once was a full-time university instructor, and I still teach part time. Powell made me realize the importance one teacher can make. “My family was struggling when I was in high school,” she said. “I never thought I could go to college. But I had a high school counselor, John Sauers, who all the time told me, ‘Of course you’re going to college.’ ” Powell added that because of that encouragement, she went on to earn a master’s degree and launch a successful career.

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Bernice Ranford, 66, has strength and character chiseled in her face. I met her one Sunday afternoon as she and other volunteers ladled out food to about 400 homeless people in Pioneer Park in Garden Grove. Ranford started the feeding effort seven years ago as a one-person activity. Now scores of volunteers are involved. The sight of so many poor people, especially so many children, waiting for food unnerved and humbled me. Later that afternoon I had to stop for groceries at my neighborhood store, and I felt guilty surrounded by so much food that I could afford to buy while so many people in the county had to wait in lines for just one meal.

Johnny L. Williams, 53, made me realize that the horrors of enforced racial segregation still linger in this nation. Williams, a vice principal at Valley High in Santa Ana, now works with the Urban League to help black youth seek bigger horizons. When he was growing up in Shreveport, La., Williams faced rigid segregation because he is black. He expressed no bitterness, and he said he still loves to go back to visit relatives. “But there are some small towns there where it’s still not safe,” he said.

Paul Dobyns, 39, reminded me of the indomitable spirit of humanity. He is a quadriplegic, bound to a wheelchair because of a diving accident nine years ago. A bright, handsome man, his physical life was shattered in one horrible instant. But his outlook on life is better than that of most people I daily encounter. Dobyns now works as a volunteer with former mental patients returning to mainstream society. “Getting involved in other people’s problems is a good way of getting out of your own skin,” he advised me.

When I sometimes complain about problems in my life, I find it helps to recall the advice of Paul Dobyns and the example of the six other remarkable people that I recently had the pleasure to meet and interview. Life is good. And life is better when it is unselfishly shared.

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