Volunteer Action Center hooks many hands-on helpers

Laura Miller of Kensington got hooked after looking for a way to fill some summer afternoons.

Mitchel Cohen of Oakland wanted to give something back to his community.

And Sally Moses of Alameda needed a baby fix after becoming a long-distance grandma.

Driven by different motivations, all three East Bay residents recently sought out volunteering jobs through the Volunteer Action Center at the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay. And all three say their service projects probably have been as rewarding for themselves as for the recipients of their efforts.

"I think I get more from volunteering than they do," says Cohen, who along with his sons, ages 13 and 10, has prepared and delivered Chanukah baskets for needy seniors and served up holiday meals for others.

"You feel really good when you walk away and say, 'Hey, I did something for people,'" says Cohen. He's also interested in visiting senior centers to perform as a singer but needs a pianist to accompany him.

Working with the elderly is a particular interest of Cohen's. Both of his parents are deceased and he'd like his sons to have more contact with seniors.

Matching prospective volunteers to jobs that fit their interests and time schedules is one of the missions of the 5-year-old volunteer center.

"There's a job out there waiting for just about anyone," says Ilana Schatz, the center's director. "Our job is to find out what people are interested in doing and then provide them with several volunteer possibilities to see which one works for them."

Opportunities abound, according to Schatz, who rattles off such wide-ranging options as serving on the board of a local Jewish agency, cleaning a beach or helping a newly arrived immigrant learn English and the bus routes.

"It really covers the gamut," she says.

Interest in volunteering is on the rise, according to Schatz, who last year placed about 450 people in volunteer jobs throughout Alameda and Contra Costa counties. That's up about 50 percent from the previous year.

Community service has been a longtime passion for Moses, who only half-jokingly claims, "There are very few organizations I haven't been in."

A year ago, she became a grandmother when her daughter in Texas had twins. After visiting twice in the spring, "I was having such withdrawal. I called Ilana and said, 'I just want to hold babies.'"

That wish led to a volunteer placement at Children's Hospital Oakland.

Because she's busy working on a master's thesis, Moses can't visit as often as she'd like. She is studying industrial and organizational psychology, a field selected "because I've been fascinated with organizations and volunteerism since I was little," she explains.

When time permits, Moses hopes to visit hospitalized children regularly and is looking into a program where she can bring along her dog, a sheltie mix, to play with the youngsters.

For Miller, a 17-year-old junior at El Cerrito High School, the decision to volunteer came last summer. At the time, she was attending a debating camp and toyed with the idea of getting a job for the remaining hours of her vacation.

Because of that camp and plans to spend a month in Israel through the Koret Foundation, Miller figured she didn't have the time to commit to a regular job. She decided instead on community service and was drawn by an ad in the Jewish Bulletin seeking volunteers to feed the homeless.

During the summer, she became an almost daily helper in the kitchen at Trinity United Methodist Church in Berkeley. Because of heavy school demands, she hasn't been able to volunteer quite as often.

"I guess I kept coming back because I felt good about what I was doing," Miller says. "I liked the people who were working there. I feel good about working with the homeless and broadening my horizons. You can tell how incredibly grateful they are when you give them the tray of food."

At the volunteer center, Schatz says prospective volunteers decide to help for a variety of reasons. Some are youngsters seeking to fulfill a mitzvah requirement for their b'nai mitzvah. Many are in East Bay Midrashot, a program for high-schoolers sponsored by the East Bay federation's Center for Jewish Living and Learning. Others are parents who want to introduce their children to the concept of tikkun olam, or healing the world.

The center currently is working on a plan that would match Jewish businesspeople as mentors to businesspeople in low-income areas.