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Making A Difference In Your Community : Volunteers in Search of a Natural High

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

They learn to sing, dance and work backstage, but the most important lesson for Natural High Entertainment volunteers is learning how to live a better life.

Volunteers for the group--which was started 12 years ago to help the down and out--perform 30 to 80 times a year for charities, community organizations and other nonprofit groups such as the Special Olympics and Rebuild L.A.

The performers all have something in common.

“We’ve all been victims of different circumstances,” said lead singer Mary Beth Niekowal.

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Natural High volunteers have pasts that include homelessness, prison, drug use, alcoholism. One volunteer, who became the announcer for the shows, used to make his living by stealing Mustangs. Now, he’s preparing for a job as a broadcast announcer.

Niekowal, a waitress, said that she left behind drugs and a fast lifestyle, when she became one of the first volunteers. Partially deaf, Niekowal learned to sing and dance from group founder, Lester (Smitty) Smith Jr.

“Smitty took me under his wing,” Niekowal said. “I didn’t know, really, who I was. . . . We’ve all grown with each other and supported each other.”

Smith, 53, was a singer and music producer until 1974 when a jealous girlfriend shot him four times while he was sleeping. A lung and his vocal cords were badly damaged and one of the bullets lodged against his spine. Doctors told him he was going to die.

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But he lived and the shooting became the turning point of his life.

Smith got rid of everything he owned, except a Chevrolet van. Smith, who had worked on cars all his life, started to customize it--adding beds, a shower and electronic equipment.

He named the van Natural High after an album by the pop group, The Commodores. It attracted plenty of attention, including that of a runaway teen-ager visiting Smith’s shop.

Smith said he told her, “If you go back home and back to school and get off drugs, you can be the spokeswoman for promotions for the van.”

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The girl accepted, later became an honor student in college and eventually the owner of a business.

That success led Smith to try to find ways to help other people straighten out their lives, including forming the singing group, which he named after the van that is also used in the shows.

“Now I feel there is a purpose for my living,” Smith said. “I’m on a mission to help those who feel that they don’t have a chance.”

Smith is looking for new volunteers to be signers, dancers, writers, producers and directors of the shows. He is also looking for someone to operate a puppet show, as well as a volunteer public relations assistant, photographer and videographer, sound engineer and a grant researcher.

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Those who want to volunteer can contact the Natural High Entertainment Group Inc. at P.O. Box 5304 Chatsworth 91311-5304 or call (818) 725-3659.

The San Fernando Valley Counseling center in Northridge will hold a meeting on Aug. 20 at 10 a.m. at the First Lutheran Church of Northridge for those interested in becoming volunteer paraprofessional counselors. The meeting will include information on training sessions for those who want to be volunteers. People of all ages, language and cultural backgrounds are needed and there are no educational prerequisites. Volunteer counselors will be trained and supervised by licensed mental health professionals. The church is at 18355 Roscoe Blvd. in Northridge. For more information call (818) 341-1111.

A new Neighborhood Watch Service Center in the Dixie-Coldwater neighborhood needs volunteers to answer phones, coordinate a civil patrol, participate in a telephone tree network and be involved in neighborhood safety and emergency preparedness. They are looking for volunteers to work one or two hours a month. Those wishing to help can call Alex Auerbach at (818) 501-4221 or Howard Goldman at (818) 981-2320.

Getting Involved is a weekly listing of volunteering opportunities. Please address prospective listings to Getting Involved, Los Angeles Times, 20000 Prairie St., Chatsworth, 91311. Or fax them to (818) 772-3338.

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