By admin Aug 18, 2009 News No Comments
More volunteers pitch in as economy stalls
'People ... see the need to get involved in their neighborhoods.'

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

IRVINE. When Kenya Beckmann was driving home after her kids' Little League baseball game one day, she asked herself why it was so much harder for families to go into volunteer work than into youth sports.

"It would be great if we had the same organized setting for volunteering, where families could just drop in," she thought – and then she founded the Family Service Team.
The group has entered its third season, and interest is soaring. About 30 families with children ages 3 to 8 rally once a month at different locations in Orange County. Modeled like a sports team, the group of parents and kids serve at soup kitchens, make blankets for toddlers in need or harvest vegetables to donate to a food bank. The families wear jerseys, have team photos taken and celebrate at a party at the end of the season that runs from June to November.

"The goal is age-appropriate service in a way that reflects the simplicity and team spirit of youth sports," says Beckmann, a 35-year-old working mom of three from Irvine.

The Family Service Team is only one example of a growing interest in volunteer work that is not confined to Orange County. With the economy in a slump, the compassion boom can be witnessed on a national scale. A report recently published by the Corporation for National and Community Service found that 61.8 million Americans volunteered through an organization in 2008, up one million from the previous year.

Additionally, do-it-yourself projects such as the Family Service Team have dramatically increased. According to the national service group, the number of people who worked with neighbors or friends to fix a community problem rose by 31 percent, from 15.2 million in 2007 to 19.9 million in 2008. However, the statistics do not specify the numbers for Orange County, which is counted with Los Angeles.

"We witness a rise in participation and in the applications for projects," says Daniel McQuaid, president of the Volunteer Center Orange County. "With the economic downturn, people more and more see the need to get involved in their neighborhoods."

At the same time, the face of community service is changing, McQuaid says.

"People increasingly want to make use of their skills and knowledge to make a difference," he says. "It's not only about simply doing time, but to complete a project and offer a professional service for free."

At Someone Cares Soup Kitchen in Costa Mesa, members of the Family Service Team gathered on a Sunday afternoon for their August event. Parents and kids wore green or blue shirts with their numbers and names printed on the back. With thick markers and stickers, the junior volunteers transformed plain white lunch bags in colorful surprises for the hungry. In the meantime, the adults formed an assembly line to smear peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

Carol and Jason Mindte from Laguna Beach participated for the second year in the program. They see it as

an opportunity to teach their children, Jacob, 5, and Megan, 7, the importance of giving to people with needs.

"We have a lot of spare time on the weekend and have done nothing before," Jason Mindte says. "Now, we have a feeling that we contribute to something larger."

Five-year-old Alex Padilla decorated her bag with a sticker shaped like a heart and the writing "Be happy.''

"We decorate bags to help other people. That's a good thing," the girl from North Tustin says, as she prepares for her next task: frosting cup cakes.

The findings of the CNCS also show that the boom is largely fueled by young adults.

"The millennial generation is a more service-minded and altruistic generation," group spokesperson Sandy Scott says, pointing out that applications to AmeriCorps have risen by more than 200 percent over the past eight months.

Mike Kamer serves as an AmeriCorps member with Human Options in Irvine, an organization helping battered women and their families. After finishing a philosophy degree at University of Nevada in Las Vegas, he worked as a nightclub promoter.

"I felt unsatisfied and empty at that time," the 26-year-old says.

Now, Kamer is beefing up the presence of Human Options on Facebook and other social networks. He uses the techniques he once applied to lure people into clubs in Vegas to attract new volunteers and donators. "I'm actually doing something I love – coming up with ideas, being creative – for a good cause," he says.

Karla Michel spends her AmeriCorps year with KidWorks in Santa Ana, working with children and teenagers from at-risk neighborhoods. The UCI-graduate has taken the LSATs, could have gone to law school in fall, but then postponed her plans to do volunteer work.

"As a recent college grad, there is no better place to gain experience that you can see as valuable," the 23-year-old says.

High school intern Laura Robison is another young O.C. volunteer. She is part of a new program by the Pacific Life Foundation that places 32 students from University and Woodbridge high schools in Irvine with local non-profit organizations for the summer. Robison, who is going to be a junior, works with the Orange County Volunteer Center, creating her own project that focuses on cleaning transitional housing for homeless.

"Volunteer work is important, because in order for a community to thrive and improve, we need to help each other," Robison says. "The crisis has worsened things. This should motivate people even more to volunteer."

Back at Someone Cares Soup Kitchen, the members of Family Service Team wrap up their day of service. More than 120 ornamented lunch bags and a couple hundred cup cakes with bright toppings are lined up on a large table ready to be served.

The extra food is a more than welcome aid at Someone Cares: The influx of people to feed has nearly depleted the resources; the volunteer-based non-profit is in dire need of donations to keep the operation afloat.

"The kids truly provide a service for our guests," says Shannon Santos, who runs the soup kitchen.

She cherishes the idea to gear community service towards children.

"It's like planting seeds at young age for volunteerism," she says.


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