WISE & Health Aging volunteer Jean Kelly makes phone calls to seniors warning them about a scam in which a caller pretends to be the senior's grandchild, begging for money because they are in trouble abroad. (photo by Kevin Herrera)

CITYWIDE — Perhaps the recession isn’t all bad.

For the most part, Santa Monica non-profits have noticed a spike in the number of people willing and available to volunteer their time despite the tough economic times.

At WISE & Healthy Aging, volunteer numbers have increased twofold in the past year, Director of Volunteer Services Petula Storey said.

“Because of the economic situation we are getting people who have, unfortunately, lost their jobs,” she said.

Still, Storey continued, volunteer work gives people a chance to keep old skills fresh and to develop new ones — always a good thing in a shaky job market.

Caroline Koskinas, who had trouble finding a job after she graduated from business school, got even more out of her volunteering experience.

“No one was really hiring,” she said. “I was looking for something to do.”

In February, she took a volunteer position at WISE & Healthy Aging counseling seniors about reverse mortgages. As it turned out, Koskinas’ volunteer gig turned into a paying position. She recommends volunteering to anyone struggling to find a job.

“It’s a good way to stay active and involved while you’re looking,” the Venice resident said. “And it’s a rewarding activity.”

WISE & Healthy Aging relies heavily on volunteers to provide services such as senior visits, adult day care, referrals and scam prevention education.

The situation is similar over at Heal the Bay. Volunteer Coordinator Saira Gandhi said that the organization started out as all-volunteer. Today, volunteers make educational presentations, perform office work and, as always, clean the beach.

In the past few months, Gandhi has noticed a higher turn-out for the cleanups. In April, 1,600 volunteers showed up for one event. The previous record of 800 had been set just one month before.

Gandhi also pointed out an increase in older volunteers free to work on weekdays — they probably lost their jobs, she said. One such volunteer is Malibu resident Susan Miller, who was laid off earlier this year because of the recession.

“I wasn’t working, so I felt I had to do something to contribute,” she said. “If people who are accustomed to being busy aren’t busy, they want to direct their energy somewhere.”

Miller said she finds it difficult to volunteer and look for work at the same time. But, as longtime member of and financial contributor to Heal the Bay, she thinks it’s important to get the word out about environmental issues.

“We’re in big trouble,” she said, “and people just don’t have any idea.”

Westside Food Bank Executive Director Bruce Rankin also said volunteer hours have increased. He attributed the change to an increased awareness of need in the community.

“It’s prominent in the media, and many … now know people who were affected by the downturn in the economy to the point that they have to seek food from a food pantry,” he said.

Volunteers at the food bank do office work, sort incoming food and complete pick-ups and deliveries.

“We couldn’t do what we do without volunteers,” Rankin said. “There’s more volunteer time than paid time put into this organization.”

Nancy Griffin started volunteering there last fall. The increased needs of the community were a factor for her, she said, but she was truly touched by President Barack Obama’s call to service.

“Obama has inspired more awareness about the importance of community service,” she said. “Everyone needs to make a contribution. Bush did not emphasize that at all.”

Miller made similar statements, and Storey cited the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, passed in March.

Griffin, who said she doesn’t need to work to support herself, volunteers weekly at the Food Bank. Her task is to deliver boxes of food to a location in Venice, where she lives.

“I wanted to do something on a real, very basic human survival level,” she said. “It’s pretty simple but I like doing something every week that reminds me how lucky and fortunate I am.”

Miller, on the other hand, is trying to keep her mind off misfortune.

“Doing something constructive makes it a lot easier to deal with the destructive situation I’m in,” she said.

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