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Volunteering Pays 'Real Good'

Full Speed to Port!

Posted: February 27, 2008 3:27 p.m.
Updated: April 29, 2008 5:02 a.m.
I was leading 12 fourth graders on the trail at Placerita Canyon Nature Center, where I am a docent, teaching kids about nature. We were standing under a California sycamore that would have provided shade if it were summer. It was a brisk winter morning, and I had need of a handkerchief. While I was in the process of handkerchiefing, one of the kids in front of me said, "What is that?" I replied, "It's a handkerchief." Another one said, "I've heard of them!"

Holy cow! Am I that old? What happened to handkerchiefs? I wasn't aware that they had gone out of style like turtleneck sweaters and knickers. Don't they sell them anymore? Are they against the law? Did some lobbyist from Kimberly-Clark get Congress to abolish them from the face of the earth?

Another time some of us oldie docents were standing outside the main building at Placerita waiting for the bus to come with the kids. I said to the guys, "Isn't it interesting the way we are influenced by our fathers? I've been carrying two handkerchiefs in my back pocket all these years just as my father did." To my left was Bob Moss, who reached into his pocket and pulled out one, then a second handkerchief, just like that. I couldn't believe it. One for blow and one for show. I don't think I've used the second one three times in the last 70 years ... but I'm ready.

Some years ago I was a docent for the regal castled Southwest Museum that arose high above the Pasadena Freeway in the Highland Park area. Huddled on the floor in front of me in the California Indian Room was a bunch of third graders. I had a senior moment trying to recall the name of a particular Indian artifact. It was a stone utensil used for frying. Finally it came to me - "comal." I spelled it for them. I noticed that all the children had little spiral pads. A few were anxiously taking notes. When the talk was over they filtered out of the room and a smiling little girl with shiny, pitch-black hair held back and approached me, tearing a sheet out of her pad and handing it to me.

Inscribed on it in big blue letters was the word "COMAL." I thanked her very much and asked her name. Maria. Was that a million-dollar moment or not? Who knows? Some ancestor of hers may have handled this rock long before I did. I've never forgotten the names "comal," or Maria, since then.

One morning driving to the museum, I was feeling a little blue wondering if I ever got through to these kids or if I was generally doing a good job. In a very similar situation as above, I was in the midst of the lecture holding up an artifact when bellowing out of the group in front of me came the words, "You're good!" I thanked the young man and savored a rare moment in a docent's career. The cream that topped the event was that his father, who had come along as a parent volunteer, told me his son hadn't wanted to come to the museum. He thought it would be boring.

The following is borrowed from another docent's experience. After instructing a group of third-graders on botany, including information on oak trees, the group headed out into the oak woodland that surrounds the main building at Placerita. Eager to check whether any of her students remembered her earlier instruction, the docent, who's name was Susan, pointed to an oak and asked the kids what was the name of the tree she pointed to. She coached them a bit, stating that it had three letters. Hands hesitated to go up when suddenly a boy in the rear yelled, "Bob!"

Are the above experiences the only reason I like volunteering? Of course not. They are few and far between. I find it fun to gaze into the eyes of all those little kids and wonder who they really are and where they are going. Can I help in some way to get them there?

I can't overlook what I gain from the camaraderie that results from being with folks with similar interests. Good volunteering has to be fun, and socializing with other docents helps make it so.

I am a natural for retirement. I would like to have retired at age 23. So many new worlds have opened up for me. I also go to the pubic schools and teach third graders about the Tataviam Indians that lived here, probably a lot longer than we are likely to judging from the state of the world. But volunteering gives more meaning to my life and satisfies my need to give to my fellow man in a significant way. I like myself better when I look in the mirror in the morning. Volunteering pays "real good."

Phil Rizzo is a longtime Santa Clarita Valley volunteer. His column reflects his own views, not necessarily those of The Signal.


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