Much of the North Coast runs on the work of hidden heroes, with many thousands of hours donated each year by volunteers who make the impossible possible, make good things happen and help create special memories for others.
Those volunteers have accomplished an astonishing amount for such a small community, both hands-on and by raising money. Among their many accomplishments are buying and preserving the 430 acres now known as Fiscalini Ranch Preserve, raising the town’s share of costs for a new library building and creating a museum out of a ramshackle but historic building.
Cambria’s volunteers have built a program to protect elephant seals and the people who want to see them, saved and maintained a tiny, treasured chapel, helping restore artworks and artifacts at Hearst Castle, restoring a lighthouse and maintaining miles of trails.
But there now may be a shortage of people willing to give time to others or to special causes.
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Those range from driving seniors, training for emergency responses and leading scout groups to providing the dying with hospice care, protecting open spaces and tending homeless kitties.
Volunteers are needed to provide the manpower for such events as the scarecrow festival, Pinedorado and major bicycle races/rides, or guiding visitors at special sites such as state parks, trails, elephant-seal haul-out areas and museums that range from Hearst Castle and the Cambria Historical Museum to the Cambria Bike Kitchen.
Nearly always, there’s more work to do than there are hands, strong backs and quick minds to do it all.
Nonprofits and service groups alike constantly seek new members and volunteers, and they’re ratcheting up their efforts now because fewer people are applying.
The lack of new volunteers seems to be across the board, from small local clubs to groups representing state and federal agencies, from the Sunrise Rotary Club and Cambria Historical Society to the Lions Club and Piedras Blancas Light Station.
Leaders of the Cambria Forest Committee say — only somewhat jokingly — that anyone who attends more than one meeting of the group is not only invited to join but is also encouraged to become a director. The committee works to preserve and protect Cambria’s Monterey pine forest, one of the last remaining native stands in the world.
Committee co-chairman Crosby Schwartz wrote in an email interview, “Participation on the Forest Committee historically goes up and down depending on whether or not there are interesting and controversial things going on.
“I think the potential increase in grant funding for forest-related projects in Cambria is going to stir up some good discussions about the resulting project descriptions.”
He also said, “The controversial discussions about the water supply project and development in Cambria may have reduced the community’s enthusiasm for volunteering to work together on anything.”
Membership in the Rotary Club Sunrise Centennial has dwindled to about eight members from more than 35 when the group organized 10 years ago, according to past president Linda Finley, and a couple of those members “are on long leaves. Others can only attend every so often.”
The Cambria Historical Society’s “dedicated few are doing double or triple duty about town, and are happy to do so,” said Consuelo Macedo, Community Relations Chairwoman of the society’s Board of Directors. “But in our age bracket, many of us are ‘aging and breaking,’ so we hope younger, able-bodied folks can answer our frequent appeals.
“Our predicament,” she said, “is that there is the same amount or more work to be done inside the museum and outside in the Heirloom Gardens. We have expanded our activities, which requires more time and energy for our willing corps.
“There have been many more suggestions about what people would like us to do, including being open more days and/or longer hours. But, alas, no manpower.”
Lions Club President Andy Zinn estimated Feb. 2 that the club’s membership has dropped by about 10 percent, in part because some members have moved away and others have died.
In many groups, no matter how many members are on the roster, there’s a core group that does most of the work. And as those core members get older, there are tasks they can’t do any more.
Sometimes the age factor pertains more to the family’s children.
The biggest issue for Cub and Boy Scout troops is “some parents will volunteer to help until their son or daughter either graduates (or ages out) of scouting, and then the parents will not continue,” according to Bob Putney, district commissioner of Boy Scouts of America’s Del Norte District/Los Padres Council. “It is always difficult to attract and retain new volunteers, even in a volunteer-rich community like Cambria.”
At the U.S. Outstanding Natural Area and historic light station, the volunteer effort began years ago with Carole Adams’ determination to remove non-native plant species from the scenic site. Since then, she and her volunteers have pulled tons of iceplant and other weeds.
Piedras volunteers also lead public tours at the point, work in the gift shop, do research and perform myriad tasks that help restore and protect the historic tower and site.
“Tours are a wonderful way for volunteers to feel they are making a positive difference in protecting, restoring and maintaining the incredibly beautiful light station,” Adams wrote in an email interview. “Tours stress stewardship and cover a variety of topics from light-station history to natural history” and details about the land and sea wildlife.
How do nonprofits and service clubs plan to expand their ranks?
The light station will hold tour-training sessions for new docents March 20 and 28, April 3 and 11. Volunteers are asked to put in a minimum of 10 hours a month, including drive time, although “many volunteers put in much more than that,” Adams said.
The historical society and other groups also offer training.
The Rotary Club’s Finley said the group will hold a 10th anniversary party Friday, Feb. 23, and members are considering changing the 7 a.m. Tuesday meeting time that was one reason why the club was launched. The larger Cambria Rotary Club meets every Friday at noon, which also was an inconvenient time for some members.
Schwartz said the forest committee has “added several new members recently,” and he’s talking to other potential members.
Zinn said the Lions Club doesn’t go out and seek new members, but does encourage those who want to help at special events, such as Pinedorado, to join. “We let people know what good they can do if they’re involved,” he said.
Zinn also is courting some younger potential members but acknowledges that some people may already be overcommitted, or not want to become official because then they’re afraid they’ll have to work too hard.
“Some people don’t want to commit” to that, he said.
Putney said “there is a constant need for new parents or family members to step up to keep scouting going. Scouting, like many youth programs, needs leadership to help the Scouts advance and learn new skills. This is an issue with all forms of youth-
oriented volunteer organizations, and the need “is not isolated to the North Coast or Cambria.”
Macedo said, “I don’t know the answer.” She is “dismayed” on behalf of the historical society and “other community nonprofits who are also having to cut back or eliminate services to our wonderful Cambrians” because fewer of them are volunteering to help.
What motivates North Coast volunteers
Why do people donate time and work for free? Some volunteers at the Piedras Blancas Light Station described why their time there is so worthwhile.
Georgianne Jackson looks forward to her shifts at the lighthouse because “each time it is so totally different. The ocean may be wild with huge waves, or calm and peaceful. We may see all kinds of wildlife: pelicans, cormorants, peregrine falcons, dolphins, whales, otters, seals, sea lions. … Each time is different, but the one common factor is that the experience quiets my mind (and) soothes my soul like no other volunteer activity does.”
Bob Dees: Volunteering there “makes me feel like I am helping to preserve something wonderfully unique for others to enjoy and learn from … a uniquely concrete connection to the history of California, including the people, cultures, plants and animals” that make the Central Coast “the fascinating, amazingly beautiful area it is.”
Harry Thorpe: “I’ve always been interested in history,” and the light station “has some fascinating stories in its past. Volunteering as a lighthouse tour guide has offered me the opportunity to share those stories with visitors while I enjoy the beauty of our coastal scenery and the ever-changing and entertaining activities of our maritime wildlife.”
Abel and Toni Martinez say volunteering at the light station “provides us many learning opportunities, a variety of rewarding experiences, the means to work with other terrific volunteers, an opportune time to meet visitors from near and far, a way to meet new friends, an amazing scenic environment, a great way to share a historic navigational aid station and the opportunity to inform the tour visitors about the need to protect this special sanctuary of wildlife.”
Peter Romwall was inspired to join by the “passion and dedication” of the late Jim Boucher, former park manager.
“His love for the sanctuary of spectacular and dramatic beauty that is Piedras Blancas moved me.” Every day Romwall spends there, “I am humbled and filled with gratitude.”
Dave Babcock loves “the beauty of the place, and passing on information about it to the guests who come to visit ... (and) the other volunteers who enjoy sharing the light station as much as I do.”