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You Don’t Have to Run Away to Find ‘Community’ : Charity: City folk don’t realize how hard small towns work on the qualities we envy.

<i> Karen-Alicia Robertson lives in the San Fernando home her family has occupied for three generations. She has been a volunteer at the County Museum of Art and a Sunday-school teacher. She is in charge of recruitment for Catholic Big Brothers. </i>

Angelenos are fond of the illusions they create for themselves. Take the one I commonly hear when I mention that I grew up in northwest Oregon, in the small town of Sheridan (population 2,500). It seems that many people here cling to fantasies about escaping the demands, challenges and frustrations of modern urban life for the presumed simplicity, harmony and easy sense of community found in rural America. It is this illusion about small-town life being easy that is distorted.

I am certain that in describing their civic participation, the word easy is not one that would be often used by the more than 70 men and women who staff and operate Sheridan’s volunteer fire department; or the four community service clubs that annually sponsor more than two dozen events, including a three-day rodeo and two major scholarship fund-raisers, or the countless other residents who work year-round on the community’s four-day Western festival, “Phil Sheridan Days,” held each June. They would, however, say something like, “It was well worth the effort. After all, what would Sheridan be like without ‘Phil Sheridan Days’ every year? You know, these things just don’t happen on their own.”

There lies an important truth--things do not just happen on their own. Not in Sheridan. Not even in Los Angeles. But it seems that many Angelenos prefer day-dreaming about escape to getting involved in the communities, neighborhoods and organizations in which they live.

Maintaining a positive environment and a strong, healthy community takes a lot of effort and requires everyone to contribute. Close-knit communities of all sizes are built on the collective notion that every member has something of value to offer and contribute to the common good--moreover, that each person has a responsibility to do so.

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It is readily apparent in a small town like Sheridan what will happen if a large percentage of the residents do not participate in civic activities: The services, events and programs are simply no longer available to be used or enjoyed. The same is true here in Los Angeles. It may be not be as obvious, but the result is the same. Programs will cease to be offered. Community events will not be held. Friends will not be made. A sense of goodwill and respect for one another will not be fostered.

We must all do our part if Los Angeles is to once again be the kind of place we would proudly call home. We must begin by recognizing ourselves in one another. We must start by remembering that the person who moves more slowly than we would like them to, or requires more attention and service than we would want them to, could very well be us. We must recall the old saying, “There but for the grace of God go I.”

The reality is that our lives are truly intertwined and connected in a multitude of ways. Just think back to the last time you were delayed on the freeway because of a single car breaking down. Or the time you stopped visiting a certain park or neighborhood because of activities you heard or saw take place there. And were we not all impacted by the upswell of feeling after the announcement of the first verdict in the Rodney King case? In Los Angeles, our lives are perhaps more interrelated than those of residents in smaller communities. The difference is that we have not consciously come to understand the need for us to utilize our connectedness in the most positive manner possible.

If the quality of life for all Angelenos is to improve, each of us must become agents of change.

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In Los Angeles County there are more than 25,000 nonprofit and community service organizations as well as countless grass-roots groups serving the particular needs of their communities. Become involved in at least one of them today. Instead of dreaming of a better quality of life that you believe effortlessly exists in rural America, put your energies into making Los Angeles the kind of place you want to live. Remember, a better L.A. won’t just happen on its own.


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