Volunteering with a passion


New Year's is a time when many people resolve to break bad habits, but in this week's issue, we feature a group of individuals who seem to have a habit worth keeping. They volunteer, and how. The way some of them do it, you’d think they were addicted.

Take Virginia Kasper and Marie Wilson, for example, both in their 80s. They donate their time to so many public agencies and charities it’s enough to make your head spin. Then there’s Anita Robinson, who, when she’s not busy presiding over her own bank, chairs a nonprofit organization that helps create affordable housing options for needy families. Like all the subjects in this year’s volunteer issue, these folks just can’t stop giving.

So if you’re looking for a way to occupy yourself in the coming year, something to take your mind off the cigarettes you want to quit smoking or the jelly doughnut you’ve been craving, consider taking up volunteer work. It may be just as habit-forming, but it’s cheaper than hypnotherapy, and it’s good for your heart.

—Jeff Hornaday




VOLUNTEER:  Bill Rouch and Heldi
  • VOLUNTEER: Bill Rouch and Heldi

#Bill Rouch and Heldi: helpers for the homeless

When Bill Rouch lost his eyesight to diabetes eight years ago, he says his life just started falling apart: He sat at home. He distanced himself from friends. He lost himself inside his own head.

This isn’t a Cinderella story; no fairy godmother appeared to give him his life back. Instead, Rouch did it himself. He learned how to use a cane. He learned to use a short-wave radio to communicate with other people in the blind community. He started an online business, selling electronic parts.

And then came Heldi. Or, as Rouch calls her with a loving smile, “a gift from heaven; the dog from hell.�

Guide dogs are not pets. They don’t play fetch. “They’re rarely allowed to be dogs,� Rouch says.

At home, Heldi has several key locations that she’s always tied down to and she never gets to run and play with Rouch’s other black lab. That’s because Heldi is a working dog; it’s her job to help her boss across dangerous intersections, around crowds at the supermarket, and through a world that would be impossible for a blind person to navigate alone.

“She gives me the esteem to keep going,� Rouch says.

She also helps him as a volunteer. Rouch donates several hours every week to the Homeless Housing Project. He helps homeless people who are sick a get a roof over their head until they’re well. And he works with the project’s sub-group, the People’s Kitchen. And he volunteers for an adult housing community and for his church.

All the while, Heldi guides him, acting as an icebreaker along the way.

“She’s a good go-between,� Rouch says.

Rouch volunteers because he has a “moral feeling� that he needs to give back. There are so many people, he says, who have helped him because of his handicap, now he wants to return that. The fact that he was working at age 14 and living under the Newport Pier at the same time draws him to the homeless.

“I’ve been down that line in my life and now I’m more comfortable. It makes me feel good to help,� he says. “And it’s not for naught; you get paid back in other ways.� ³

—Abraham Hyatt



VOLUNTEER:  Jodee Bennett
  • VOLUNTEER: Jodee Bennett

#Jodee Bennett hikes the high road

Volunteering is about commitment. As a graduate of Cal Poly after 19 years of part-time study, Jodee Bennett knows all about commitment. And with her hard-earned degree in horticulture, she has a passion for all things green.

Bennett has been volunteering as a board member with the Environmental Center of San Luis Obispo (ECOSLO) since 2003, and she’s been leading hikes with Natural San Luis for nigh on a decade. Natural San Luis is a program that runs in partnership with the city and the nonprofit organization ECOSLO. These docent-led hikes take people up close and personal into city open space; the natural beauty that surrounds San Luis Obispo.

But when Bennett first got involved in the Natural San Luis Program through a leadership class headed by ECOSLO Director Geoff Land in 1995, the city didn’t have so much open space. Under the guidance of Neil Havlik, natural resource manager for the city, Bennett saw the open space blossom to some 3,000 acres.

San Luis Obispo’s open space, land owned and managed by the city, includes areas like Bishop Peak, Reservoir Canyon, and the recently acquired 700 acres of the Irish Hills west of Los Osos Valley Road near Prefumo Canyon.

Bennett makes the most of this open space, and every month she takes about 10 or 20 hikers on a guided tour of our area’s pristine wilderness. Her goal is “to get the word out about how much open space we have and how wonderful it is to get out and hike.�

The monthly hikes are announced in SLO Stewards, a quarterly newsletter printed in cooperation between ECOSLO and the city, and in the New Times calendar listings.

“There are miles and miles of trails out there, and that’s what makes this place different,� Bennett said. “And it’s why a lot of us live here.� ³

—Jeff Hornaday



VOLUNTEER:  John Battalino
  • VOLUNTEER: John Battalino

#John Battalino takes it to the stage

When people think about volunteering, they generally think about services to help the needy — organizations for the poor, the elderly, and the disabled. But John Battalino works with another kind of group that provides something we can all use more of, no matter how healthy or wealthy we may be.

For almost 20 years, Battalino has been working with the SLO Little Theatre as a performer, director, lighting technician, president, and board member. A retired medical officer by profession, Battalino first developed a passion for theater in high school. Live theater, he says, is the most powerful way to tell a story that can improve people’s lives and touch their hearts.

Battalino moved to the Central Coast from Albuquerque, N.M. in 1984 and immediately took an interest in the Little Theatre. Now in its 58th season, the SLO Little Theatre is one of the longest-running community theaters in the country, and is operated almost entirely by dedicated volunteers, most of whom also manage to hold down full-time jobs.

The Little Theatre honored Battalino with the lifetime achievement award this year, but “I can’t take credit for doing any more than anyone else,� he said.

Battalino loves the Little Theatre for the role it plays in the community and for the opportunity it gives amateur performers who can’t give up their lives to act full-time.

“Theater to me has always represented the soul of the city,� Battalino said, and to be a part of that is a great honor and a privilege. The purpose of theater is to tell a story that will improve the human character, he explained, and that’s always been his attraction.

Battalino volunteers as much as he can, but most of his work is in the area of theater arts. This year he helped put on the “The Jungle Book� at Morro Bay High School, and he also works regularly with the Children’s Theatre, a small department of the Little Theatre.

“The greatest joy in life,� said Battalino, “is being able to help my fellow man.� ³

—Jeff Hornaday



VOLUNTEER:  Leener Lannon
  • VOLUNTEER: Leener Lannon

#Leener Lannon: sharing her strength

One in three women — and one in eight men — are sexually assaulted over the course of their lifetimes. Over 350 San Luis Obispo residents were last year. The stories are frightening, but Leener Lannon is listening.

As a volunteer for SLO’s Sexual Assault Recovery and Prevention, aka the SARP Center, Lannon counsels assault survivors and helps them recover.

Though her work at the Center and its 24-hour hotline (545-8888), she deals regularly with traumatic events — and as a rape and incest survivor, she knows them all too well.

“I do this because not everyone can do it,� she says. “I wish no one had to, but I’m lucky. I am a stronger person for showing where I’ve come from; it’s not the only part of who I am, but it’s the one I wear on my sleeve.�

Lannon has volunteered at SARP for eight years and regularly serves as an educator and liaison to the community, speaking at schools and correctional facilities about safety and her experiences as a survivor. She talks frankly of the night she was raped and threatened with death, and after she does, she sees the results immediately.

“The reward is to have people thank you for sharing your experiences and open up with theirs,� Lannon said. “I also got to speak at CMC to a roomful of murderers and rapists, which was very empowering.�

Lannon’s coworkers are equally inspired by her.

“She’s an amazing, wonderful, goddess volunteer,� said Rani Shah, SARP’s Crisis Services coordinator. “We couldn’t ask for a better one. Her compassion and her understanding [are] unbelievable.�

Her work has not gone unnoticed. Selected as SARP’s 2004 Volunteer of the Year, Lannon comes from a long line of empathetic figures. Her grandparents fed homeless travelers and unionized coal workers, and her brother and father serve as both professional and volunteer firefighters. Her mother, Jean Gordon, was featured in a previous New Times volunteer issue for her work with the People’s Kitchen.

“I’m very proud of what I do,� Lannon said. “I am able to help people become survivors, not victims. For that, I wouldn’t change anything I have been through.� ³

—Stacey Anderson



VOLUNTEER:  Conrad Mendoza
  • VOLUNTEER: Conrad Mendoza

#Conrad Mendoza: empowering teens

It would be hard not to include Conrad Mendoza in this issue. After all, he was named 2004 volunteer of the year by GALA, or the Gay and Lesbian Alliance, in San Luis Obispo for his work as its youth services coordinator.

It’s no surprise that they did: Not only did he grow GALA’s Youth Project from two teens to 12, he also helped run the very first Youth Empowerment Conference last May — an event that was, as Mendoza put it, “amazingly well attended.�

Funded in part by a grant from the city of San Luis Obispo, the conference drew about 80 teens and educators. For the teens, there were a panel of speakers and a forum. For the educators, there were ways how to make school safer for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered kids. Of course, there was lots of food for everyone.

Mendoza’s goal with the teens in the Youth Project is to teach them they have a future. “I don’t encourage them to be gay, but to be their selves,� he said.

He points to a study that asserts that more than 30 percent of teen suicides can be traced to teens not knowing what to do about their sexual orientation.

His goal, he said, is to show them that “somewhere out there, someone loves them, and right in front of them, someone cares.�

“They need to be on board,� Mendoza said. “They need to have a voice. They are our future.� ³

— Abraham Hyatt



VOLUNTEER:  Anita Robinson
  • VOLUNTEER: Anita Robinson

#Anita Robinson makes housing affordable

In an area mostly sheltered from the ugly ills of the inner city, the greatest crisis facing the Central Coast is probably its need for affordable housing. And while that problem may have no solution, Anita Robinson is doing what she can to provide some practical relief.

Robinson chairs the board of the San Luis Obispo County Housing Trust Fund (SLOCHTF), an organization established to help subsidize some of the costs associated with creating affordable housing for low- and moderate-income individuals. The organization started coming together about eight years ago, and Robinson’s been involved for about four.

As housing prices continue to appreciate, and income levels fail to grow at the same pace, the idea of homeownership is becoming a distant dream for most SLO County residents. And many struggle simply to pay the rent on a small apartment.

“We’re not saying that everyone’s going to be able to buy a home, but what we’re trying to do is make sure that everyone has a roof over his head,� Robinson explained. “So our catchall vision statement is ‘Housing For All,’ and that’s truly what the mission is, to make sure we provide that for everyone.�

With 32 years experience in banking, as a founder as well as the president and CEO of Mission Community Bank, Robinson brings a wealth of vital expertise to the Housing Trust Fund. Much of her role has included raising public awareness, speaking to public officials, and helping to fund-raise in the form of seed dollars and any kind of grant dollars.

The bank itself was designed to be actively involved in all types of community development affairs, looking at issues relative to creating jobs, creating small businesses, creating home ownership opportunities. In accordance with its special vision, Mission Community Bank also strives to create opportunities for underserved markets, such as minorities, women, and woman business owners.

The spirit of volunteerism can been seen throughout the ranks of Mission Community Bank.

“It’s not a requirement, it’s not in the job description, but it’s highly encouraged, because that’s part of the bank’s mission,� Robinson said. “I believe it gives them a better grounding and makes them happier people when they’re involved in community service work.�

For the past 14 years, Robinson has also been involved with the Economic Opportunities Commission (EOC), lending her financial expertise as secretary and treasurer. Active in eight counties, the EOC is the agency designated to be the advocates for those who live in poverty, running programs like Head Start in homeless shelters.

“I’ve enjoyed it because it’s a way of keeping your feet firmly planted on the ground, when you see that there are people living at poverty level and barely making it, and that there’s a lot of need out there for people.� ³

—Jeff Hornaday



VOLUNTEER:  Virginia Kasper
  • VOLUNTEER: Virginia Kasper

#Virginia Kasper: can’t slow her down

Virginia Kasper is so busy volunteering that even scheduling her for a photo shoot was pretty tricky. Kasper, who will be 83 in March, volunteers almost every day of the week. She takes Sundays off. She estimates
that she volunteered over 1,400 hours last year. But for Kasper it’s not about the hours, it’s just about doing something good and staying busy.

“It gives me something to get up for; to get up and get healthy,� she said. “I feel I’m doing something for other people.�

Kasper volunteers for numerous organizations, including French Hospital, Social Security, the DMV, the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program, and Judson Terrace.

Kasper has been volunteering at French Hospital for 18 years, helping at the front desk and with paperwork. She works eight-hour days at the hospital, but said, “It goes fast.� When she gets home, she continues her good deeds by knitting hats for the newborn babies.

Kasper normally volunteers at a couple different places everyday.
At Social Security she shreds
paper, and she does office work at the DMV.

Kasper is from Michigan originally and came to San Luis Obispo to be with her mother, who also volunteered often. It was 20 years ago that she joined her mother in her volunteer efforts, helping out with projects like Meals on Wheels.

Kasper encourages other seniors to volunteer as well. She said there are many jobs that can be done while sitting down.

“You can work as long as you want; if you get tired you can go home and come back another day,� she said. “I think everyone should volunteer. As we get older we do less. If you don’t do a little something to stay busy then you just deteriorate.� ³

—John Peabody



VOLUNTEER:  Marie Wilson
  • VOLUNTEER: Marie Wilson

#Marie Wilson: octogenarian on the go

When it comes to helping your community, there’s really no end to the volunteer work that can be done. That’s the lesson Marie Wilson learned when she started volunteering at Sierra Vista hospital more than 20 years ago.

In 1979, Wilson moved to the Central Coast from Los Angeles, where she had been a schoolteacher. When she found there weren’t so many jobs in this area, she began volunteering, and “one thing led to another,� she said.

Today she volunteers for at least eight organizations in the county, including Sierra Vista Hospital, the Homeless Housing Project in Paso Robles, Caring Callers, and the San Luis Obispo homeless shelter off Orcutt Road. Wilson also presides over the local chapter 3213 of AARP (American Association of Retired People), an organization in which she’s been active in SLO and Paso Robles since 1987. And if that’s not enough, Wilson also gives her services to Mission Church when they need a Eucharistic minister or someone to greet new parishioners.

“I usually don’t say my age, because people think I should be in a wheelchair,� Wilson said, but at 81, she works more than most people one-third her age — and all for free.

“You could do a lot more if you had the time,� she said. By her own estimation, probably on the conservative side, Wilson gives between 160 and 200 hours a month to these various groups.

Wilson volunteers in part because she remembers the hardships of growing up in a poor family, often depending on the generosity of strangers.

“The goodness has rubbed off from others,� she explained, “and I hope my good work has the same effect.�

For others interested in volunteering, Wilson encourages people to contact groups like RSVP (Retired Seniors Volunteer Program) at 544-8740 or the United Way. She also said that the Homeless Housing Project in Paso could use some help, and she mentioned that AARP in SLO needs a new president because she’s ready to step down from that volunteer position. It’s a great way to meet people, Wilson said, and there are always people who need some help.

“My primary purpose is to make this world a better place for us all,� Wilson said. ³

—Jeff Hornaday



VOLUNTEER:  Jack Beigle
  • VOLUNTEER: Jack Beigle

#Write on, Jack Beigle

Jack Beigle has taught reading and writing for 15 years with the Literacy Council. Beigle has been an avid reader all his life, and so when he retired he naturally gravitated toward helping others achieve the same fulfillment he received from reading and writing.

Beigle, center director at the Arroyo Grande learning center, praises the Literacy Council for the amazing work they do.

“We have a very good training program,� he said. In a short time, anybody with a high school education can be teaching reading. And Literacy Council learners can get the satisfaction of reading in their first session, he said.

“You see progress being made, and you get a sense of pride that you’ve helped someone improve their whole life.�

Beigle said that learning how to read is like learning how to ride a bike. You may not use it every day, but once you’ve learned how to do it you can use it whenever you want.

“When you teach reading and language skills to someone, they’ll never lose it,� he said.

The Literacy Council has 351 tutors and 465 learners, said Bernadette Bernardi, executive director.

“It’s amazing to me that the volunteers devote this much time,� Bernardi said. “We couldn’t do our work without them.�

Learning how to read is like climbing a ladder of knowledge, said Beigle. The Literacy Council is particularly important because it teaches people how to take the first step up the ladder.

“We only see them for the first few rungs,� he said. After that the possibilities are endless.

The Literacy Council can be reached at 541-4219 or at ³

—John Peabody



VOLUNTEER:  Marjory Johnson
  • VOLUNTEER: Marjory Johnson

#Marjory Johnson: a lifelong love affair with books

Marjory Johnson’s life has come full circle. At the age of 6, she began shelving books after school at the local library in Ashland, Kan. where she waited for her widowed mother to get off work from her job as the county treasurer. Johnson’s lifelong love of libraries had begun.

She would go on to graduate from the Oklahoma College for Women in 1943 with a degree in library science. In 1951 she began work as assistant director of the county library system in San Luis Obispo, where she worked for 36 years until her retirement in 1987.

Since her retirement, she has been volunteering at the very library she worked at for so many years. And she chooses to volunteer in an area she loves best — shelving. Aside from shelving, she also assists with the annual library book sale, which she was responsible for implementing 26 years ago. This year the library book sale will take place March 10-12 at the SLO Veterans Building, and she expects sales to be as good or better than last year.

“Last year we raised over $8,000, and that money went directly back into the library,� she said.

Johnson volunteers for many reasons. One is the fact that it keeps her and her husband of 59 years, Richard, busy. Aside from her time as a volunteer at the library, both her and Richard volunteer at the county Historical Museum as well. She says that studies show volunteers live longer.

“It keeps us active, and we know what’s going on locally within our own community,� she said. But her biggest reason for volunteering is utterly unselfish. “I’m doing a job that needs to be done,� she said. “And the recipients of that are very grateful.� ³

—Brenda Wiley


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