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They do it because it’s the good and right thing to do

Central Coast volunteers get joy out of helping others, no matter what cynics may say

Someone once said, "Anonymity is the truest expression of altruism," but here at New Times we: a) think that’s idiotic, and b) don’t think that’s very fun, which is why we have our volunteer issue every year where we tell you all about people who, out of the goodness of their hearts, do nice things for others. It’s not like they’re going to toot their own horns, right?

Frankly, a lot of people are too cynical about volunteering. One of our bitter editorial staff members thinks people only volunteer to make themselves feel superior to someone like me, whose volunteerism begins and ends with reluctantly agreeing to eat the last slice of pizza. (For the record, I didn’t volunteer to write this introduction.) That unnamed staffer probably would have agreed with Australian novelist Christina Stead, who said "Altruism is selfishness out with a pair of field glasses." No one knows what that means, exactly, but doesn’t it sound marvelously clever?

Most people, thankfully, think volunteers get out there and lend a hand because they know it’s the right thing to do, it’s fun, and maybe, just maybe, they feel so blessed in their own lives that they simply can’t help helping others.

Regardless of why they do it, volunteers deserve some recognition. So, dear readers, prepare to hear some horn tooting for nine outstanding individuals who are doing their part to make a difference in our local community. If they’re not careful, these nine may help realize Prez Dubya’s dream of making our government-sponsored social safety net obsolete through a national network of volunteers, which would be a real burr under the saddle of New Times’ cynical staff member, who would instead have to turn his ire against the lousy cretin who snatched the last slice of pizza–heaven forbid!

–Glen Starkey

Dr. Jerod Sharon: A friend to the elderly

Dr. Jerod Sharon, 62, a member of the Jewish community, will never forget his first volunteer job: driving Martin Jacoby, a Holocaust survivor, to and from doctors’ appointments 10 years ago.

Since driving Jacoby around in Menlo Park, Sharon has always been motivated to offer his assistance to senior citizens, continuing his involvement with the elderly when he moved to Arroyo Grande.

"His story is so fascinating," Sharon said. "Need I say how he touched my life? He was such a courageous man and he kept his humor right to the end. He was a little like the character from the movie ‘Life Is Beautiful.’"

As a teacher and father, Sharon always had the desire to serve others, but didn’t start volunteering until he was encouraged by his wife, friends, and rabbi.

In SLO County, Sharon volunteers as an arm of the Congregation Beth David community. He visits Sydney Creek at The Village, Cabrillo Care Center, and Garden House each month with materials for a service. His wife, Maureen, cooks the chala, bread used in Jewish ceremonies.

Sharon is also a member of Kiwanis Club, secretary for the San Luis Obispo’s ministerial association, and assists in many of his synagogue’s services.

"Most of the people I deal with are wonderful people," Sharon said. "Age has no limits for being a wonderful person."

–Natalie Connelly

Jean Gordon: She dishes out the soup

Jean Gordon, 71, couldn’t stop volunteering for People’s Kitchen, a local feed-the-hungry group, even if she tried, because soup, her favorite meal, just tastes better when she cooks it in a gigantic pot.

"In the beginning I just wanted to make soup because I love to cook," Gordon said. "I didn’t want to be on the board, but I ended up co-chairing it for three years."

After more than 15 years of chairing or supporting the Kitchen’s board of directors, Gordon is finally standing behind the stove.

In the past, Gordon has been kicked out of Mitchell Park by city officials, forced to drive around to various city-mandated food-serving locations with a giant tamale pie, and dish meals in the rain. Now that People’s Kitchen has a permanent home at the Prado Day Center, a daytime service facility for homeless, things have calmed down a little bit.

"People love the idea of feeding the hungry, but nobody wants them in their backyard. Neither do I," Gordon empathized.

Gordon said she has always been volunteering. She was raised by a union-organizing father and a mother who taught cheap cooking during the Depression. She is active in her church, the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, and with the Hemlock Society, a right-to-die educational group.

"This is the most satisfying work I’ve ever done," Gordon said. "It’s instant gratification; making the food and immediately feeding somebody. Not like sending a check off somewhere."

–Natalie Connelly

Ethel Monforte: A Handicapable volunteer

When Ethel Monforte met Nadine Caliguiri, a cerebral palsied woman who initiated Handicapables, a program to include handicapped individuals in church functions, she felt a calling to help the program in whatever way possible.

"It was like the Holy Spirit said, ‘Ethel you’ve got to do this’," Monforte said. "I felt like it was a calling. I was so inspired by Nadine."

Monforte began volunteering with Handicapables in 1969 by organizing activities in her Los Altos church, but when she moved to San Luis Obispo in 1987 she stopped working with the group.

It wasn’t until 10 years later when she was visiting a Catholic church in San Francisco where she saw Nadine again that she felt compelled to introduce the program to Old Mission San Luis Obispo.

As chair of Handicapables, once a month Monforte organizes transportation for the participants to come to Old Mission. After the service, the Handicapables chow on breakfast while a band pumps up the event. Monforte makes sure that all the Handicapables carry home a present, often a stuffed animal.

Although Monforte heads the program, she emphasizes that she couldn’t steer the program without her husband, Frank, who accompanies her on all of her volunteer missions, and the countless volunteers, from the cooks to the wheelchair pushers.

Monforte and Frank also volunteer for Saint Vincent De Paul Society, which gives emergency money for people who need a little cash to buy gas or a bus ticket, and the Telecommunications Pioneers, who endorse literacy by giving books to schools and sew heart-shaped pillows for open-heart patients.

–Natalie Connelly

John Baer: Music is key helping others

Music has been the key to salvation for Arroyo Grande resident John Baer. A pianist and organist, he believes that music and the arts are what make life worth living. It’s these pleasures that lie at the end of a long workday.

"Music is very important in my life," he said. "And I think it’s very important that we keep music in other people’s lives. My theory is that we make money to enjoy the arts and music. We don’t make money to make money. When I look at the civilizations that have gone before us, what they leave is their culture–their music, their arts, their architecture, their literature."

For more than 10 years, Baer has given his time and talents to the music-education committee of the San Luis Obispo Symphony. Its purpose is to expose children to music and musical instruments.

The committee offers an after-school strings program for children interested in learning a stringed instrument. Instruments are rented for a highly reasonable cost. If a parent can’t pay, scholarships are offered.

They have a "petting zoo," a booth they take to county events that allows people to play with a variety of musical instruments. Also, a music van is taken to county third grade classes, where kids can hear recordings of instruments and can play with them.

"We want to encourage kids to play," said Baer. "We have seen a lack of music being offered in the schools. We feel that music is so important in a child’s life that we have to pick up the slack."

–Jack Beardwood

Alice Cushing: Her heart is in the art

One of the first things Alice Cushing did when she arrived in town was join the San Luis Obispo Art Center.

Twelve years later, she is still volunteering her time. According to Karen Kile, executive director, Cushing is the heart and soul of what is a very special place for many people.

"She has a strong loyalty and love for this place. It gives the staff, the board, and other volunteers the kind of warm feeling that someone cares that much. She is here for this place."

Kile said whatever job needs to be done, Cushing does it. She helps with putting out mailings, does a multitude of tasks related to a variety of fund-raisers and festivals, closes the building at the end of the day, and is available to answer questions from artists and visitors.

"I try always to go to the openings so I know about the artist and can talk to the visitors about them," said Cushing, herself a watercolorist. "And I know a little bit about painting, so I can help if they have questions."

The San Luis Obispo resident said she originally became involved with the hope of meeting new people. "I didn’t know anyone when I first moved here, and now I have a lot of very good friends. It’s just a nice place to work and I enjoy being there. The Art Center couldn’t function if it wasn’t for the volunteers."

–Jack Beardwood


Kevin Sullivan: He makes sure the voices are heard

Kevin Sullivan wears his passion for poetry on his sleeve. The anchor in his life is poetry.

For more than 19 years, the San Luis Obispo poet has contributed his talents in promoting poetry on the Central Coast. He is co-founder and director of the San Luis Obispo Poetry Festival, and has organized a group of poets (Corners of the Mouth) that share their work on the third Sunday of every month at Linnaea’s Cafe at 7:30 p.m.

"We bring poets in from all over the country, and we’ve had some internationally known poets," said Sullivan. "We had a great Irish poet, Eavan Boland, a few years back. We’ve had great American poets, like Carolyn Keiser, Bob Hickok, Stanley Plumly, and Carol Muske."

With no paid staff, Sullivan writes grants, sets up the room for readings, books the poets, coordinates publicity, and helped them gain nonprofit status.

"We bring in all sorts of voices," he said. "Poetry has a great diversity within it and we try to bring that diversity here. Whether they be voices of color or cultures or forms of poetry, like performance poetry, we bring in a wide selection of poetry for the people to hear and become exposed to.

"I love poetry. And I believe in sharing with the public. Because we have a democracy, we can have a lot of different voices. It is our responsibility to present them on a public platform."

Sullivan has also volunteered with Caring Callers and the Knights of Columbus, where he put on a monthly pancake breakfast for several years.

–Jack Beardwood

Wally Ohles: Retired teacher wants to give back

For Wallace (Wally) Ohles of Paso Robles, volunteering to help others is just another march to the beat of his own drum.

Ohles, a retired high school teacher at Paso Robles High School and a very busy member of the Paso Robles Lions Club, said being drawn to volunteer work is just a natural extension of his career.

"I’ve always been a teacher," he said, "and I’ve always considered myself a public servant. After 25 years with the taxpayers paying my salary, I felt I owed something to my community. It’s in my nature."

Noting that he is a lifelong "confirmed" bachelor, Ohles said his time is more of his own, and as a result he has more opportunity to involve himself in projects undertaken by his fellow Lions members.

Born on the Klamath Indian Reservation in Oregon in 1938, Ohles started teaching in 1960 in a seventh-grade classroom in Cresent City. He moved to Paso Robles in 1967 and retired in 1992 after a devastating heart attack almost killed him. He now teaches part-time at the school, in addition to his volunteer activities.

"The Lions Club motto is ‘We serve.’ That really says it all," said Ohles.

He authored a 369-page book, "The Lands of Mission San Miguel," as a fund-raising tool for the mission, and was instrumental in the re-publication and indexing of the 1917 book, "San Luis Obispo County & Environs." On any given day, one might run into Ohles serving as a tour guide at the mission.

–Daniel Blackburn

Greg Morris: Service above self at Rotary

Greg Morris was uncomfortable being singled out as a key player in the world of San Luis Obispo County volunteers.

His efforts with Rotary of San Luis Obispo, he said, are no different from those of fellow members. Many around him politely disagree.

"We all have to be helpful," said Morris, a longtime partner in the insurance firm Morris and Garritano.

"Members who stay long enough see what Rotary is all about, and that’s service above self," said Morris. "And we have a lot of members who just quietly do a lot of volunteering."

Rotary International recently sponsored a project in which a million volunteers in a single day immunized 65 million children worldwide against polio. Morris, his wife, and friends were in India that day, providing the drops to children in a small village.

"That was a staggering accomplishment," said Morris. "We’re close to eradicating this disease."

He said he is simplistic in his approach to volunteerism.

"It is important to realize that we are our brother’s keeper, and that we are all called to help one another," he said. "This can run the whole spectrum from someone like Mother Teresa, who dedicated her entire life to working with the poor in the slums of Calcutta, to a volunteer feeding people in our community at the People’s Kitchen, to someone simply giving a smile or greeting a homeless person on the street."

The Rotary Club of SLO, working with its African contemporaries, paid for drilling a water well in the center of Malawi, Africa, a project that is literally changing the lives of the people in that small village.

Morris was also one of a handful of people who revived Mission College Prep School, and presently serves on its board of directors.

–Daniel Blackburn

Sam Helton: Support for the hospital

His peers had to rewrite their own rules in order to retain Sam Helton as second-term president of the Arroyo Grande Community Hospital Auxiliary.

Helton organizes and assigns a volunteer cadre of 100 people who combine efforts to make life a little easier for patients and hospital personnel.

The auxiliary owns and operates the hospital gift shop and hosts a booth every year at the Strawberry Festival. Utilizing a long list of other fund-raising efforts, the group raises money for scholarships, passing out $10,500 every year to deserving students who want to make a career of any aspect of the medical field.

Helton said his fellow volunteers "are just like family. They are a wonderful, wonderful group of people."

He administers activities of volunteers who staff the hospital’s information booth, run prescriptions from floor to floor, and a host of other activities. The group raised money for purchase of two defibrillators this year, at a cost of $17,000.

Helton, whose wife, Irene, has been a hospital volunteer for 20 years, said he, like his fellow volunteers, gets more than enough reward for his efforts.

"It’s wonderful when people who can help, do," Helton said. "There is so much that needs to be done at a hospital. And when people like these volunteers are available, it really helps the patients. And that, after all, is why we all are in this."

–Daniel Blackburn Æ

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