A DIFFERENCE EVERY DAY Volunteers thrive on simple reward of a job well done

ACTION NEEDS no recompense, financial or otherwise, on Make A Difference Day. USA Weekend magazine created this annual celebration of altruism, which falls on the fourth Saturday of every October. This year it’s held on Oct. 24.

The time reminds people that money is nothing and joining together is all. It’s also a time to recognize those who make a difference throughout the year. While geneticists, anthropologists and philosophers debate whether altruism is inherited through the genes or passed on through culture, we need only look at the individuals for whom giving is second nature. Today, the Times profiles five of our community’s volunteers.

Suzan Bateson

Suzan Bateson earns a salary from volunteerism. A day’s work might involve waking up before sunrise to attend morning meetings, passing out materials during a United Way Community Day at the A’s game, or cajoling company executives to relinquish just a little more spare change her way. When she isn’t mentoring, coordinating and recruiting, the telephone coil leashes her to her desk for another 30 hours a week.

So what does the executive director of the nonprofit Volunteer Center of Contra Costa do in her spare time? Volunteer, naturally.

At night, Bateson is a nonprofit board member, grad night committee member and camp adviser.

She keeps a laugh ready to relieve the stresses that a thousand and one details can bring. Still, this is the life she chooses and clearly loves.

The center itself is affiliated with the Points of Light Foundation, the clearinghouse for clearinghouses. The foundation was formed during President George Bush’s tenure; the center came about in 1956 with help from the Junior League. That year also saw the start of the Adopt-A-Family Program, whereby corporations contribute funds to provide food and goods for needy families. More than 500 such volunteer centers exist throughout the United States, including centers in Alameda and Solano counties.

Errant notes cram Bateson’s weighty daily planner. This week, one of her meetings revolves around a new program that would match high school students with middle school children as mentors. Another meeting with a staff consultant will follow the progress of another new project that would extensively mesh business volunteers with middle and high school students.

Bateson has directed the center for almost three years. Today she’s getting her coffee intake before a 9 a.m. meeting to train agencies on pitching volunteer projects. A natty Prussian blue suit and blue ribbed turtleneck hint at her fashion-industry background, even if the ensemble was purchased resale. She did a little of everything in that industry since the age of 12, from modeling to designing.

At some point, the Moraga resident says, the work just didn’t do it for her anymore.

“I wanted to have my children have a model of someone who gave back to the community.” As a woman who struggled as a single mother of three daughters for five years, she also had an inkling about the difficulty of raising a family in affluent surroundings.

Her resolve to be an example has worked. “My kids have always volunteered with me.”

Just recently, her 17-year-old daughter Sara Walkup attended a Baltimore orientation with Bateson. Walkup had been her youth partner in the application for a national grant, which they received the first in the center’s 42 years. At the orientation, Bateson recalls, “it was a gift to watch her, as a student leader, unfold.”

Bateson notes you can never be too young to volunteer.

“No matter how off your life feels at the time, no matter how low you feel on the food chain, you can always help.”

The Volunteer Center of Contra Costa (1830 Bonanza St., Suite 100, Walnut Creek) recruits and refers about 2,000 volunteers a year to help in 300 nonprofit organizations in Contra Costa County. Ages 10 years and older can explore volunteer opportunities year-round. Besides its listings, programs include Community Agency Service, Corporate Volunteer Council, Disaster Response Network, Holiday Adopt-a-Family, Human Race Walk-a-thon, Youth Action Council. To volunteer, call 925-472-5760 or consult www.volunteerinfo.org/volcencc.htm.

Claire Small and Sylvia Lewis

To Claire Small, the Palo Alto studios of the Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic is literally home.

She grew up in the West Charleston Road bungalow, before all those apartment buildings started crowding in. She moved to the suburbs, but still visited the peninsula to check on her aging parents and sit in a small office reading textbooks aloud into a microphone. The reel would later be transferred to cassette tapes for blind students and professionals. After her parents died, she inherited the home and wonderful oak trees that she knew would be bulldozed the minute she sold the land.

“It was my family home, ” says Small, who now lives in Rossmoor. “I didn’t want my family home to be torn down.” So she sold the two-bedroom house and gardens to the nonprofit where she had been volunteering, then donated the money back to them over the years. “It was a win-win situation all the way around. I got the tax deduction, they got the property.”

That was 30 years ago, but Small can’t help referring to studio A or B or C as the “dining room” or the “sun room.” She arrives every Wednesday for about four hours to read what students and professionals request.

Small has racked up more than 5,000 hours and has no plans to stop. “I love what I’m doing, ” she says. “I love the people down there. In a way, it’s sort of my baby. I was on the board at the time the move was made, I was involved in the alterations in the building. We even closed in what had been an open patio area, and that is now our music booth because I thought it would be wonderful to record musical textbooks, because so many blind people are musicians. Now we have the piano in there and we have musical volunteers who play and record a lot of musical texts.”

Small says she has been “fantastically fortunate in so many ways, no thanks to any effort on my part.” For her, working in the soundproof studio and at the Hospice Thrift Shop in Walnut Creek on Tuesdays is just a way of paying back. “If there were not volunteerism, I think probably I would have curled up my toes and said good-bye to this world by now, ” she declares. “If I had to spend my days playing bridge, playing golf, going shopping, I’m telling you I’d be going starkies . . . I may be now, but in a different way.”

Not that the work’s always inherently pleasurable. Small admits to being so bored by some of these textbooks that she’s fallen asleep. She never knows what she’s going to read, and sometimes she doesn’t even know what she’s reading while she’s reading it. But that is actually better. “It’s a bad thing to get too interested in what you’re reading. It slows the reading down.”

Sometimes, though, the books on psychology, sex and sexual problems can get graphic. “There are a few books that some of the little old ladies will not read, ” Small says.

“I’ll read anything; it’s just words coming out.”

Sylvia Lewis car-pools with Small on Wednesdays, but drives from her Orinda home by herself on Saturdays. Back in the late 1960s, Lewis had heard a radio announcement about the Recording for the Blind (now the Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic).

“I had been interested in radio work when I was in college, ” Lewis recalls. “Now here’s a chance to do some radio work, except it wasn’t radio they were asking.”

She has volunteered all her adult life. Part of a doctors’ wives group in Alta Bates Hospital, she would make curtains for the rooms or any other project the Berkeley hospital needed. Recently, though, the 85-year-old left Alta Bates. “It got so big, and so many new people coming all the time, it didn’t have the charm and appeal for me.”

Lewis won’t give up her current position. Like many of the 350-plus volunteers, Lewis works both as a reader and a monitor, which requires working the recording machine during the session. But mostly she reads.

“I love it, I just love it, ” Lewis says. “I love the context with the people. I love the idea that I’m making it possible for students who are visually impaired to learn as easily as those who have full sight.”

And she has no plans to stop. “As long as they let me drive. As long as I got my driver’s license, ” she declares. “I just love working there. I can hope I keep on working there until I die.”

The Princeton, N.J.-based national organization Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic started 50 years ago when a group of women got together at a New York library and decided to read for blind veterans returning from World War II. Besides planning a three-year celebration, the organization will gradually convert to digital audio, which will shorten and simplify recording, enable CD-ROM distribution, and let students go right to a specific page rather than take time to fast forward or rewind. The Palo Alto site at 488 W. Charleston Road will be a beta test site by next summer. To volunteer, call 650-493-3717 or visit the Web site at www.rfbd.org.

Jeanette Steinle

A team of four is best, but sometimes it’s just Jeanette Steinle and her co-leader Iris Christeson. This makes testing 20-25 boisterous preschoolers slow-going, and that means they can’t make the rounds to 13 school sites a year as expediently as they’d like.

The children enter the room or a reserved corner spot two at a time. They’re usually quiet and wide-eyed as they study the volunteers who hold squirrel-shaped erasers and plastic in the shape of the letter “E.”

Steinle and her volunteers test for amblyopia, commonly known as “lazy eye” and immortalized by cartoonist Charles M. Schulz when his character Sally Brown wore an eye patch to correct her wandering eye. The condition, when detected early enough, is reversible; otherwise, the child will have reduced vision.

Steinle recently had one sad case involving a young girl who was tested in November. Her right eye was completely turned to the side. “We referred her and we thought she had an appointment with the doctor. We didn’t follow up with her, ” she says.

When they returned to the preschool in the spring, the child’s sight had worsened further, and she was again referred to a doctor. Steinle doesn’t quite know why the child never saw the doctor. Part of the problem was the mother had several children, didn’t speak very much English and didn’t understand the vital importance of the check-up, although a translator had been present. The girl wasn’t in any pain, after all, and seemed to be functioning normally. A doctor soon examined the child, but vision was lost in the eye. It was unusual for a condition to deteriorate that quickly. “She has to wear glasses now to protect the left, because if she loses that she’s blind, ” Steinle says.

The number of children with amblyopia ranges from 2 percent to 5 percent, but the tests conducted through the Prevent Blindness organization also can gauge nearsightedness and other problems. On-site testing provides children with a familiar environment, and kids have peers to give them confidence. Steinle has worked with Prevent Blindness Northern California for 10 years. Her twin boys, now 45 years old, had amblyopia. Each wore an eye patch, graduated to glasses and today have two functioning eyes.

Steinle began her weekly volunteering just after she retired as a preschool teacher. She held that position for 20 years, but never tires of working with children. “They are real nice at that age, ” she says.

Steinle, who lives in Richmond, also volunteers at the Richmond Art Center and takes an art history class in her spare time. She does spend time trying to recruit more people to join her team, but it’s difficult getting people to contribute their time. Out of 474 volunteers in Northern California, 93 come from Contra Costa County and 102 from Alameda County.

“We’d really like to get more people from the community, like the mothers, but that’s awfully hard to do. They’re busy.” She attended a presentation with the retired teachers’ association and only four of 90 people signed up. Two were her friends. “I stood right over them while they signed up.”

Steinle says people don’t know what they’re missing.

“It can be so rewarding to see what you can do. I guess especially for someone who’s retired, who feel they’ve finished their careers, this is like a second career, ” she says. “And, of course, it gives me contact with the children.”

Besides, it’s not too trying, since, she gently chuckles, “we’re only dealing at most with four at a time. Divide and conquer. They’re usually on their best behavior with us. It’s like the first few minutes with a substitute teacher. They’re waiting to see all the chinks in the armor.”

Prevent Blindness Northern California (4200 California St., Suite 101, San Francisco) started in 1969 as the local affiliate for the national organization. The nonprofit provides vision screening for children and adults. If clients lack financial resources for examinations and treatments, PB assists in finding payment. To volunteer, call 415-387-0934 or 800-338-3041 or visit the Web site at www.prevent-blindness.org.

Katie Moody

Horses have fascinated Katie Moody as far back as memory can take her. She doesn’t know why. It could have been a movie, a walk by a carousel or a toy pony flashed in front of an impressionable mind.

Not that it matters. The 14-year-old freshman, who started riding at the end of seventh grade, knows horses are part of her existence now and will be in her future. She says she has “just always liked them, the power of them, and how you can control all that power.” That probably explains why Moody competes in dressage, an exhibition of horsemanship which requires a rider to direct a horse’s gait and steps with only slight movements.

Moody also volunteers with the Xenophon Therapeutic Riding Center in Orinda. The program consists of about three sessions a year, and helps disabled children experience horsemanship. She usually volunteers every Tuesday and Thursday after school.

“I help the kids out and help them stay on the horse. You play games with them and help out the instructor, ” she explains. Sometimes she just leads the horse around.

“I guess ’cause I’ve never had that much to do, ” she explains. Moody figured she might as well do something beneficial with her free time.

The children’s disabilities range from the mental to the physical. Sitting atop a horse can lend the rhythm and feel of a human pace, which helps some of them developmentally. “It’s just fun to see the kids just achieve what they wanted to do, ” Moody says. To feel the horse respond to a child’s nudge can be a gratifying experience. “They have something to listen to them.” Moody in turns finds it inspiring to watch the riders think their actions through and then accomplish it.

That struck her when she was watching a special education student at her Miramonte High School struggle through a problem. “I realized what it was like, what they were trying to.”

While the program is often a novel adventure for incoming clients, it has offered Moody a comforting stability, especially in her transition from Orinda Intermediate to Miramonte High School.

“Everything was so different, ” she recalls. “One day I went back to Xenophon.” Out of alien surroundings and into familiar territory, Moody immediately felt more self-assured. She thought, “I’ve done this and I know how to do this.”

She encourages friends to contribute their bodies and their talents to causes, but the contribution must come from devotion. “If you’re going to volunteer, volunteer for something you enjoy. Don’t do it because you have to do it. Do it because you can be there, you want to be there, ” Moody urges.

Moody recognizes the pricelessness of her interaction with the clients and staff, both equine and human. She never wanted money to do what she does at Xenophon, and would have paid good money to do so.

Indeed, she says, “the fact I get to do it for free is great.”

Judy Lazarus began the therapeutic program in a Martinez barn about six years ago. Xenophon Therapeutic Riding Center now operates from its own Orinda location, where it moved two years ago. To volunteer, call 925-376-7472. For other therapeutic riding programs in the area, check the Bay Area Equestrian Web site at www.extendinc.com/bayequest/handi.htm.

This article originally appeared in the Contra Costa Times