'Everyone needs help'
Local volunteers find their unpaid efforts are time well-spent in helping the community
BY AMY ASMAN
The year 2007 was devastating to many Northern Santa Barbara County residents. People lost their homes, their jobs, or both. And many who started the year poor were hit by stagnant wages and an even higher cost of living.
Members of the Central Coast Rescue Mission sober living program help set up for one of the organization's Christmas celebration. From left: Jose Camacho, Jason Fleming, and Isaias Martinez work at the organization food pantry and volunteer at multiple community events.
|PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER|
When times are hard and money is even harder to come by, it's easy to forget about the less fortunate people living in our communities. But it's during times like these that the need is usually the greatest.
Volunteers to the 'rescue'
One Santa Maria couple, Linda and Rich Antles, learned this first-hand at the Central Coast Rescue Mission.
They helped organize the annual pre-Christmas dinner at the Santa Maria Fairpark provided by Central Coast Rescue Mission staff and volunteers who handed out hot meals, clothes, and toys to hundreds of needy local families.
Volunteers from the Foodbank of Santa Barbara County stood in long rows serving food, and the St. Louis De Montfort Praise Band sang holiday songs. Later, hundreds of children waited in line for a chance to walk through the Central Coast Rescue Mission "toy store" of donated dolls, books, and clothing.
"When you see little kids standing in line for five hours who have holes in their shoes, and it's freezing cold, the light goes off that everyone needs help, and that you really don't have a problem," Linda said.
The Central Coast Rescue Mission is part of the Rescue Mission Alliance, a nonprofit Christian organization that has been providing food, shelter, and clothing across California for the past 30 years.
In 1999, Central Coast Rescue Mission began its ministry in Santa Maria by serving food to the homeless and needy during Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Since then, the organization has expanded its services to serving meals every Sunday, as well as during Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas holidays. The mission operates a daily food pantry, and regularly distributes clothes and toys to people in need.
For the past six years, Linda and Rich have helped organize and run Central Coast Rescue Mission events like the one last month at the Fairpark.
On a mission:
Nipomo pastor Mark Parke, director of Central Coast Rescue Mission, takes a break from setting up for the Christmas celebration with Sober Living supervisor David Monte (left) and Chaplin Robert Ruiz.
|PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER|
Linda serves as the organization's volunteer coordinator, and Rich is chair of the organization's advisory board council. He also serves on the Rescue Mission Alliance board of directors as a representative for the Central Coast.
Linda said while 2007 was a difficult year for many families, the organization has been able to keep giving because of the people who donate not only their money, but also their time.
She said that when someone volunteers, "it creates a domino effect," inspiring other people to volunteer their time. With the help of volunteers, the Central Coast Rescue Mission is able to better serve the community, she said.
The volunteers help serve food at events, stock the office food pantry, and deliver supplies to local families.
Linda also said that along with doing the grunt work, volunteers bring added amounts of drive and optimism to the organization when staff morale is running low.
"Working every day in this kind of job, you're kind of like a nurse who becomes immune to disease. You become immune to the poverty," she said. "But when you watch a new person come in and be deeply impacted by all this poverty, it's an eye-opening thing."
Volunteers themselves, the Antles were inspired by the scenes of poverty and loss in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated large sections of the Gulf Coast in 2005.
"When Katrina hit, I remember looking at the news and thinking how terrible and tragic it all was," Rich said. He said he knew he had to do something to help.
"I realized that Linda and I couldn't go to New Orleans and do something, but we could feed the poor and homeless here," he said.
So the next weekend, the Antles attended a weekly meal for Santa Maria's homeless put on by Central Coast Rescue Mission.
On top of helping feed people, the Antles couple began working at the organization's sober living program for men with addictions.
Joyce Nix has been working for the Rescue Mission Alliance since 1991. She is currently office manager for the Central Coast Rescue Mission.
|PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER|
The facility is home to about 12 men who are working their way through the rehabilitation process with the help of staff.
"We try to help them get their lives back on track," said Mark Parke, the pastor of a church in Nipomo and the new director of the Central Coast Rescue Mission.
Program participants are provided with addiction and relapse prevention counseling, as well as help with transportation to personal appointments.
The program is broken down into two phases, each of which lasts approximately one year. Men in phase one of the program live in the main center and are not allowed to hold jobs in the community.
However, they are required to participate in community outreach programs by setting up and serving food at Central Coast Rescue Mission events, or working in the office food pantry.
Men in the second phase of the program live at a halfway house located a few blocks from the center. They are required to hold jobs and pay rent, as well as participate in advanced stages of the recovery program.
"A nice home setting is really important for the men because it gives them a family-like atmosphere," Linda said.
From being in need to being a volunteer
Less than a decade ago, Maria Knutzen was a single mother on welfare. Today, she is the program manager in Santa Maria for the Head Start and Child Development programs at the Community Action Commission (CAC) of Santa Barbara County.
Knutzen said that her transformational journey began when she enrolled her oldest daughter Kirsten in the local Head Start program. Not long afterward, Knutzen started volunteering in her daughter's classroom.
Bringing family together:
Hilda Lopez volunteers at her son, Ricardo's classroom at the Westgate Child Development Center in Santa Maria. She said volunteering allows her to better understand her child and his needs.
|PHOTO BY AMY ASMAN|
"I was really touched by the staff and the philosophy of the Head Start program, which believes that parents are the primary educators of their children," she said.
"[The Head Start staff] really made me feel welcome and important. They validated my role as a parent, as a teacher of my child, and as a volunteer," she said.
Knutzen had been attending Allan Hancock College to become a probation officer, but her volunteering experience inspired her to apply for a position as a Head Start associate teacher.
"I decided I didn't want to be a probation officer because it was more like maintenance," she said.
Teaching would allow her to reach out to children from the very beginning, she said.
In 2000, Knutzen became a Head Start supervisor. In 2001, she began climbing the supervisory ranks at the CAC, which oversees all the county's Head Start programs.
Now Knutzen, with the help of her fellow staff members, is using the skills and support she received from the Head Start program to help other parents improve their lives and the lives of their children.
Knutzen said one of the most important ways this is done is through volunteering. Parents who enroll their children in the Head Start programs and other child development programs are required to become involved in the classroom.
"The kids are very proud when their parents come in to volunteer," Knutzen said. "And the other kids just love the extra attention the volunteers give them."
Hilda Lopez of Santa Maria began volunteering in her son Ricardo's classroom at the Westgate Child Development Center about three months ago. She said that volunteering has helped her become closer to her son.
"It's really nice to have a school that gives you the opportunity to participate in your child's activities," Lopez said.
For the kids:
Carolyn Beatson, a retiree from Arroyo Grande, has been volunteering at the Westgate Child Development Center in Santa Maria for the past two years. "I am so lucky to be able to do this. I probably get just as much--if not more--out of it than the kids do," she said as she played with children during a classroom recess.
|PHOTO BY AMY ASMAN|
"And it shows in my son's behavior. Now he understands that I have to go to work, but he knows that he'll get to see me at school," she said.
The Westgate Child Development Center offers educational child care to Head Start-qualified families and parents who are either working or going to school.
Recently, the center received a grant for $23,100 from the Rosie O'Donnell For All Kids Foundation. The money will go toward paying tuition for seven needy families to send their children to school.
"Good quality child care is so expensive," Knutzen said.
Still, she said that even with the help of the grant, volunteers and donations are always needed.
So far the center has received a washer and dryer set and an outdoor-use canopy. Several small business owners have donated their time to provide dental and hearing screenings.
Organizations such as the California Highway Patrol and the federally-funded WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) program have given educational presentations to parents.
"The most important thing is that the volunteers make the kids feel like someone really cares," Knutzen said.
INFO BOX: Want to be a volunteer?
There are plenty of places to volunteer in Northern Santa Barbara County. Here are some local organizations looking for volunteers:
United Way of Santa Barbara County
1660 S. Broadway Ave, #B
Red Cross of Santa Maria
3037 Skyway Dr., #303
Food Bank of Santa Barbara County
490 W. Foster Road
Central Coast Rescue Mission
1207 N. McClelland St.
Community Action Commission of Santa Barbara County
201 W. Chapel St.
Central Coast Literacy Council
521 E. Chapel St., Suite B
For more information on where to volunteer, visit www.volunteermatch.org. The website finds organizations based on local zip codes and personal interests.
Contact staff writer Amy Asman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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