Times of Trouble Are When Volunteers Are Needed Most : Quake Has Sidetracked Valley Efforts, but Some Residents Still Inspire Us

The first-year student at a San Fernando Valley high school wasn't very happy. Her hard-working single mother was holding down full-time and part-time jobs to make ends meet, and did not have as much free time as the daughter would have liked. It was a tossup in terms of whether her father was worse at keeping up on support payments or at just keeping in touch. He seemed to be pretty lousy at both. And there wasn't much spare cash for the kinds of material possessions that the daughter would have wanted.

So, it was hardly with high hopes that the daughter begrudgingly began some volunteer work at the suggestion of a wise neighborhood friend. In those activities, she came across families made homeless because of the Northridge quake, she came across orphans and foster kids who barely knew their parents or had never known them. And she came home with a greater appreciation for what she had in life, for how hard her mother was working on her behalf, and for how hard her oft-unemployed father was trying to help.

"I felt a little silly about having been so grumpy and down all the time," said the daughter of a mother who lives in a crime-ridden neighborhood and does not want to be publicly identified as a single female parent. "Things could be a whole lot worse for us."

That is one of the unintended side effects of volunteerism. We're referring to the fact that giving one's time and effort to another in need can be as beneficial to the giver as it is to the one who gratefully receives it. This is an issue now because of an alarming decline in the San Fernando Valley among those who would have otherwise volunteered for worthy causes.

The following numbers tell the story best: adult volunteers for Girl Scouts in the Central and West valleys, down 75%; inquiries for Big Sisters of Los Angeles, down 13%, and for Big Brothers, down by one-third; new recruits to the Volunteer Center of Los Angeles, down 20% to 25%; car-owning volunteers for Meals on Wheels, down 35% to 40%. "The numbers of volunteers are dropping off at a time when the needs are high," United Way senior planner Sally Hoover told Times reporter Abigail Goldman. Officials told her they attribute the declines to disruption from the quake and the efforts to recover from its effects.

But for every such story, there are others that may offer some inspiration for the rest of us. One came from Times reporter Jocelyn Stewart's account of the hard life of 101-year-old Mercury Adams of Pacoima. She has endured racism, segregation and poverty as well as the recent natural disasters. She still finds time to pray for and counsel neighbors who are in need of spiritual relief. Her cupboards are still open to those who do not have enough to eat.

Helen Rieder is an Auschwitz survivor who lost all but one relative in the Holocaust. Those who will honor her today for her community service describe her as a woman without bitterness who serves as a model for children and as a mentor for teachers in her role with the Burbank Temple Emanu El Nursery School.

Some of the employees of the Home Depot store in Canoga Park suffered damage to their own homes in the quake. They still found the time and the energy to help repair a stranger's quake-damaged home in Reseda.

At Valley schools after the quake, parent volunteers helped notify their peers of school closings and reopenings and meetings. They helped clean debris from damaged campuses and helped soothe each other's and their children's jangled nerves.

In the process, they were able to briefly set aside their own problems, fears and concerns. And like that high school student we mentioned, they might have come across people facing much tougher times. We're not talking about finding solace in the greater misfortunes of others. We are talking about looking beyond your own situation toward the greater good of the community of which you are a necessary part. The need for volunteers is great. Are you sure that you cannot help?

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