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AARP, EIF promote service

Three hours a week, Barry Greenberg gets more pleasure than he ever expected from sitting in a narrow Santa Monica office cubicle, one ear glued to a telephone, warning his peers about telemarketing scams.

Greenberg, 76, a semiretired public relations man, admits the volunteering he started as an AARP Fraud Fighter last December wasn’t his idea. “I never volunteered for anything in my life,” said Greenberg. “It was my wife who said, ‘You need to get out there and give something to the community.’”

Millions more Californians are about to be nudged toward volunteer service by a potentially more persuasive source than a spouse: the television set.

The week of Oct. 19, four major networks will saturate daytime and evening programming with messages about volunteering. The campaign on ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox will reframe community service as a fun social activity that is great for networking, boosting job skills and polishing resumés in a recession.

Service themes will be woven into ABC’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, NBC’s 30 Rock, CBS’CSI: Miami and Fox’s So You Think You Can Dance, to name a few, and dozens of comedy, drama and soap opera episodes. Talk shows and newscasts will devote segments to volunteering. Public service announcements will feature stars from the show being watched. They will highlight key areas of need: education and children; health and well-being; environmental conservation; financial security; and support for military families.

“I Participate” is a collaboration between AARP and the Los Angeles-based Entertainment Industry Foundation. Lisa Paulsen, EIF’s president and chief executive officer, was inspired when Barack Obama and John McCain both vowed to expand volunteer programs during a 2008 presidential forum cosponsored by AARP.

“At that moment, I realized that the entertainment industry was in a unique position to promote a new way of thinking about service and significantly increase the number of volunteers in America at a time when we need them most,” said Paulsen. The industry push will come via “the shows people love most.”

California is in an ideal position to benefit, not only because it’s home to Hollywood. Painful state cuts to health, education and welfare programs have increased recognition that “the real safety net in our culture and society is the nonprofit-based sector—the people that really catch falling families,” said Karen Baker, who heads CaliforniaVolunteers and is the first state cabinet-level head of service and volunteering in the nation.

Between 2007 and 2008, the number of Californians who volunteered rose from 6.3 million to 7.1 million, according to the Corporation for National and Community Service. Nevertheless, California averaged 42nd among states over the last three years.

Among Californians 55 to 64, nearly 26 percent volunteered last year. It declines slowly as people age.

To harness the potential of the TV campaign, organizations must do a better job of matching volunteer interests with appropriate opportunities, Baker said.

Petula Storey, volunteer services director for WISE & Healthy Aging in Santa Monica, places 600 older volunteers in scores of programs throughout West Los Angeles and Santa Monica, including the AARP Foundation’s Fraud Fighters program where Greenberg volunteers.

“I am well-read and knew about some of the scams going on,” he said. “It’s nice to be able to call people and make them aware of the problem.”

Want to volunteer? Visit these sites for more information.

* I Participate is the AARP/EIF collaboration

* AARP has additional service opportunities

* CaliforniaVolunteers is the state office for service

*  Corporation for National and Community Service is the federal           government’s list

Jane E. Allen is a Los Angeles-based freelance reporter.

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