By Wendy Fry and Alejandro Muela
A troubled nation with a plummeting economy watched the first African-American take the U.S. presidential oath in January 2009. During his inaugural address, President Barack Obama did not paint a rosy picture of America or sugarcoat the coming months. He said, in fact, we were a nation in crisis.
“Everywhere we look,” he said, “there is work to be done.”
For this reason, he called upon all Americans to pitch in and volunteer their time and expertise.
As students in the School of Journalism and Media Studies at San Diego State University, we wanted to know if anyone would answer his call to action. If Obama was ringing, we wanted to see if anyone was picking up the phone.
And we did find them — by the hundreds. Everywhere we looked, we found people answering the needs of the community. But all these people were lending their hands before Obama even put out the call.
From a grass-roots organization that provides food and water to immigrants crossing the border to people whodeliver food for AIDS patients and others unable to leave their home, to tutors who stop on their way home at the local library to help students with their homework, San Diegans everywhere were giving what they could where they could, long before anyone asked them to do it.
We found kids cleaning up the beach and an 83-year-old grandmother teaching craft classes to the blind. We interviewed undocumented immigrants, beer makers and the mayor of San Diego.
In San Diego, a major push for volunteerism began nearly two years ago. The 2007 wildfires caused a surge of disaster volunteers that were willing to help to their community. Whether it was handing out an extra blanket or bringing canned food down to Qualcomm, everyone became someone’s hero that day.
Volunteer San Diego, a nonprofit organization that provides volunteer opportunities for San Diegans, helped coordinate the disaster response and training groups and then directed volunteers where they were needed most. Kelli Ochoa, VSD’s development director, said they signed up more than 10,000 volunteers within a month of the October fires. VSD has tried to take advantage of that volunteer surge and not let it die.
“We’ve tried to keep that momentum and keep that group of people engaged and motivated with other volunteer projects,” said Ochoa.
Ochoa, who describes Volunteer San Diego as the “speed-dating” of volunteer service, said Obama’s call to action has brought national media attention to volunteerism.
“The one thing the national focus on service has done is really highlighted all different types of volunteer opportunities out there,” Ochoa said.
Though the main age-group of volunteers, according to VSD, are college-age students and those right out of college between 19 to 29 years old, an influx in baby-boomer volunteers has been a new trend.
“A lot of people are retiring, but they’re just not ready to be done with the workplace,” Ochoa said.
One aspect universal to all age groups: the habit sticks. Ochoa said if students begin a volunteer habit in high school, they are likely to continue volunteering in college and throughout their life.
Volunteer San Diego not only coordinates opportunities for the community, but also encourages people to find projects that ignite passion within them. For Ochoa and for many of the community leaders we encountered, that passion is for kids.
“I tutor because I like to work with kids. It’s on my way home, it’s twice a week and I can do it as often or as little as I want,” Ochoa said. “And I didn’t have to go through months and months of orientations to figure out if that’s what I want to do.”
From people who spend their whole lives volunteering, to people who give a few hours a week, we found people of all walks of life who were passionate about volunteering. Young and old, rich and poor, we found out that San Diego volunteers showcase the diversity of America. Here are their stories.