Oakland Local

Ninety teen volunteers from St. Anne’s in Union City volunteer at Children’s Fairyland each year. 

Over the last six months, nearly 350 people have volunteered at Children’s Fairyland as part of organized groups. We can’t thank them enough. The group members have ranged in age from kids to seniors, and they collectively worked 1,156 hours doing all kinds of tasks.

Not only did they positively impact our special park in nearly every department, but we were also delighted to observe them bonding with one another as they gave back to their broader community. Whether their goal was to build teams, to socialize with each other or to be introduced to service, they did important tasks that freed our small staff to increase our direct services to children and families.

It’s only been relatively recently that we have had someone on staff in charge of managing our volunteer program. Volunteer coordinator Jeni Johnson, who joined us in April, is enthusiastic in her praise of the groups she’s worked with. One group comprised 100 Japanese teens from the district of Japan hardest hit by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Another group came from the Oakland Bay Area chapter of Jack and Jill of America, Inc., the national African-American family organization that “leverages its power to create positive change in our communities.”

Our local companies have jumped in, too: Clorox, Starbucks, Progressive Insurance, Kaiser, Rotary Club of Oakland, Clif Bar and Pandora.

Jeni works hard to match the volunteers with the park’s needs. One of our quirkiest assigned tasks is key tying: measuring and cutting pieces of ribbon and attaching them to our famous “Magic Keys” so they can be fastened to little wrists and not get lost. “Some find [the job] quite meditative,” Jeni says. Others see it as a group project not unlike a quilting bee. We were amazed when our Japanese teen volunteers divided the task into segments for greater efficiency. They managed to tie a record-breaking 1,300 keys in one hour. (Remember, we order these keys in batches of 10,000!)

Sometimes our projects are rather appealing: helping build a butterfly garden, for example. Others, like deep cleaning and raking leaves… not so much. But we’ve seen some folks who are eager to haul dirt around, and others who adore the satisfaction that comes with pulling weeds. Many people who normally spend their workdays in offices find it enriching and inspiring just to be in a beautiful outdoor setting.

Employees from Kaiser in Oakland volunteer to help build a new butterfly garden at Fairyland.

Employees from Kaiser in Oakland volunteer to help build a new butterfly garden at Fairyland.

Jeni says she’s able to get a feel for a corporate culture when a company signs up to volunteer as a group. Some employees wear company T-shirts; others don’t. Some love to engage in friendly competition with their co-workers. Some seem to be working out office tensions, and some demonstrate the hierarchies that exist within their companies. But everyone has a good time, because we show them a lot of love, and, frankly, this is a great place to be, especially with all the happy little ones running around.

Many of our adult volunteers share their memories of coming to the park when they were little, which makes us glad. We’re always pleased when members of groups return to volunteer on their own.

But it’s the teen groups that inspire us the most.

St. Anne’s is a Catholic school in Union City, and each year its confirmation class dedicates days of service to Fairyland. They take BART to the park and are assigned to projects “that will encourage teamwork, communication and community service to ensure that Children’s Fairyland will be preserved and well-maintained for future visitors,” according to the school’s description of the program. After years of their support, you can see their positive impact in every area of the park: repainted sets, beautifully built fences, new gardens, refurbished compost bins. The kids are amazing, demonstrating boundless enthusiasm and a willingness to do anything. We on staff look forward to seeing nearly 100 of them each year.

A new partner this year is Team Oakland, a city-sponsored summer employment program for Oakland youth between the ages of 15 and 24 that focuses on litter and graffiti abatement and environmental education. When the 10 kids showed up, their adult leader asked if I would give them some advice about entering the work force. I talked about the importance of attitude in the way they approach everything they do. The kids listened politely, then tackled the task of park cleaning and key tying with gusto.

Jeni is all fired up about the future of our volunteer program. She wants to explore the idea of “micro-volunteering,” where helpers offer very small amounts of time, off-site, to assist with tasks that are typically electronic in nature. The possibility of family volunteer opportunities is also of interest to her, as is increasing the diversity of the volunteers and groups with whom we work.

Our biggest need for volunteers is coming up quickly. Our Jack O’Lantern Jamboree (“More delightful than frightful”) takes place October 26 and 27, and we need 100 helpers to hand out treats to adorable little kids in costume. If you and/or members of any social or professional team can commit to a four-hour shift, please contact Jeni at outreach@fairyland.org. We especially need help on Sunday, Oct. 27.

No trick here, just the treat of giving back to your community and its kids.

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