Good Deeds and Derring-Do : Rugged New Wave of Volunteers Actively Fights Crime, Grime as Funds Dwindle
Volunteerism used to mean Scoutmasters teaching young boys to tie a square knot, and retirees staffing the information desk at the library.
No more. Today’s volunteers are people such as Victoria McGarrity, an energetic 22-year-old marketing assistant whose idea of a fun Friday night has nothing to do with nightclubs and A-list parties. The Woodland Hills woman would rather be hiding in a car with a pair of binoculars, spying on drug dealers.
The new generation of volunteers is a rugged bunch, like Lefty Blasco, a 75-year-old former medical equipment salesman who helped reclaim paint-spattered Panorama City from the taggers. He doesn’t worry about getting shot for erasing graffiti, even though his car was dented by one angry tagger.
To the vandals who drive by and yell at him to “leave that alone,” he has a simple response: “Baloney to you.”
Two forces have combined to create this new style of gritty, hard-nosed volunteerism in Los Angeles and elsewhere, experts say.
One is the continuing shortage of government funding that once paid for everything from animal control to ship inspections, with enough left over to dream up some new service to offer taxpayers.
The other is the realization that it’s no longer enough to pay taxes and expect a government agency to take care of the problem. Increasingly, average citizens are stepping up to put their free time and, occasionally, even their safety on the line.
“I do it for the thrill of it,” explained McGarrity. “It’s rewarding when you catch someone.”
Now, the mayor’s executive director of the new Volunteer Bureau is gearing up to push volunteerism into even newer frontiers. Karen Oleon Wagener said the city already has 20,000 volunteers--double the number of five years ago--doing everything from riding in mounted patrols at Elysian Park to diving for evidence in criminal cases at the Port of Los Angeles.
A 1994 report by the Mayor’s Task Force on Volunteerism said the efforts of people like Blasco and McGarrity save the city $30 million each year. Nongovernment workers contribute labor to the Bureau of Street Maintenance equivalent to 165 full-time employees.
Wagener, 50, a former Peace Corps executive who came to the Volunteer Bureau in December, hopes to use volunteers to attack problems as they develop, rather than allowing them to fester. One of her first ideas: use volunteers to pick up packs of feral dogs that are making life miserable for some suburbanites.
“The mayor’s goal is to fill all the seats at Dodger Stadium with volunteers,” said Wagener.
“My commitment is that all volunteers have useful, rewarding jobs that make sense.”
An example of the economics driving the ever-increasing use of volunteers is the situation at the port. Six years ago, the Los Angeles Port Police had a 12-member dive team. As time went on, four left and were not replaced.
The port police recruited volunteer commercial divers, said Lt. Martin Renteria. After training them in search techniques, the police turned the volunteers loose in the water, where they have searched the hulls of vessels for drugs.
The same pattern has been repeated in department after department. The Los Angeles Police Department has 2,000 volunteers, not counting reserve officers. In the Van Nuys Division alone, they assist in videotaping homicide scenes, counseling battered women, and inputting the names of arrestees in law enforcement computers.
There are two volunteer surveillance teams. “We put them on rooftops, looking over areas of thefts and other crimes,” said Sgt. Bob Shallenberger.
One unusual assignment was to stop a rash of break-ins at a Valley golf course. An intrepid volunteer spent several hours on top of a small building, hidden in a cardboard box, watching the parking lot.
“It was kind of like an oven,” said a sympathetic Shallenberger. The sweaty work paid off with an arrest.
Helping out at the local school used to mean helping out in your child’s classroom. At Monlux Elementary School in North Hollywood, volunteers run the Homework Club after school, shelve books in the school library, mow the lawn and tend the school’s cactus garden. And that’s not all.
After the school was hit by three break-ins at the beginning of the year, causing $10,000 in damage, a local alarm company installed high-tech motion detectors in each classroom.
Another group contributed $5,500 for metal grates to protect classroom windows. Since these measures were taken, there has been only one break-in, at the cafeteria, which has no motion detectors.
Without all the support, “I don’t think the children would succeed as well as they do,” said Diane Seligson, the coordinator of the Math, Science and Technical Magnet at Monlux.
Lefty Blasco’s tale of volunteerism is a “mad as hell and not going to take it anymore” kind of story. Thirty years ago, Panorama City was the bustling center of the Valley, with modest but comfortable houses and a steady commercial base centered on the General Motors plant. Blasco watched the community change into an aging, crumbling suburb and he didn’t like it.
“It burned me up that my community went through this,” he said.
A few years ago, he became a key organizer of Graffiti Busters, one of the best-known antigraffiti programs in the city. When he started, Sepulveda Boulevard was a paint-can paradise of gang monikers and obscure tagger messages.
“We used to go out every Saturday and Sunday and not get done,” he said. But in the past couple of years, the tide of battle has turned.
“Our community is 100% clean,” he said. “We’ve got them on the run.”
Success came with a cost, at least to his 1983 Chevy Citation, which tows his sandblasting equipment from job to job. Blasco was down in the wash, videotaping a vandal at work, when the young man turned and came at him. The attacker made slow progress with his shirt pulled up over his face to hide from the camera and Blasco got to his car. As Blasco was driving off, the tagger threw a boulder at him, denting the roof of the vehicle, and leaving a lasting memory for Blasco.
That hasn’t stopped him. “People ask, ‘Aren’t you afraid of being shot?’ I’m not worried about it,” he said, displaying the tough-mindedness of many modern volunteers.
Such efforts don’t just improve the aesthetics of a community. Flip Smith, the proprietor of Flip’s Tire Center on Sepulveda Boulevard, has found that they fatten the bottom line.
Smith started an organization called Business Watch three years ago. The organization works with the police and sends letters to messy businesses reminding them to keep up their landscaping.
After the city street-sweeping trucks stopped coming around as often as he liked, Smith began sweeping out the gutters. Now Sepulveda is clean from Lassen to Burbank, he says proudly.
Asked if his efforts have been good for business, he said, “Absolutely. I’ve just opened up a new store next to the one I’ve got.”
On Friday, Smith was honored for his volunteer work by the City Council.
Leslie Yamashita of the Panorama City Neighborhood Assn.also has mixed volunteerism with danger.
When one of the apartment managers in the area was threatened by a drug dealer he was evicting, Yamashita and others stood in front of the frightened manager while the disgruntled tenant moved out.
The tenant put a gun in his waistband but never carried out the threat he made when he told the manager, “You better watch your back.”
Yamashita said the key was showing the troublemaker that the community was united against him. “If you make your presence known and say, ‘Look at how many more of us there are than you,’ it takes the fun out of it for them.”
To Wagener, numbers is what modern volunteerism is all about.
Dodger Stadium seats 56,000.