The Volunteer Chronicles: BREATHE LA

Numerous studies have shown that doing good is good for you. Some have even demonstrated a measurable correlation between volunteering and good health. Not only do volunteers live longer, they live better: Volunteering can promote a sense of well-being, bolster the immune system, reduce insomnia, lower blood pressure and cholesterol, help keep weight in check, raise energy levels, increase relaxation, and a lot of other cool stuff. Sounds like the fountain of youth, a miracle cure, and a happy pill all rolled into one. With this in mind, I’ve set out to volunteer for a different Los Angeles organization each week. I’ll write about the experience here. This week: BREATHE LA.

Woody Allen once said that “80% of success is showing up.” Sometimes, showing up is all it takes to volunteer, as I learned through my most recent mission with BREATHE LA. When I first go in to speak with Julia Robinson Shimizu, Director of Marketing and Communications for BREATHE, she’s so excited to meet me that I feel like the Queen of England or Oprah. I’m beginning to notice a theme here: It’s the same reception I received when I first met with Joanna Vasquez at Meals on Wheels.

Julia tells me about her efforts at BREATHE, an organization that champions initiatives and efforts addressing air quality issues. An affiliate of BREATHE California, a statewide organization founded in 1904, BREATHE LA was founded in 2006 and provides communities in Los Angeles County with the resources needed to promote clean air initiatives through their continued commitment to research, education and advocacy.

Last year, BREATHE LA introduced the Children’s Breathing Rights Act of 2006, a piece of groundbreaking legislation that, had it been enacted, would have increased penalties on chronic air polluters and directed fines back to lung health programs in the communities impacted.

“It was voted down in 2006 and reintroduced this year, but ultimately removed from the verbiage of the final bill,” Julia tells me when I ask what ultimately happened to the Act. “We do not intend to give up the fight, and continue to look for opportunities for the legislation to be reintroduced. In part, there was just not enough of a public outcry. Kids have a right to breathe clean air, but without proper legislation it’s not going to happen.”

I ask what Angelenos can do to support the cause, and she says that a great way to help is to simply show up at public hearings. In fact, she tells me that the California Air Resources Board (CARB) is holding a public hearing at the Los Angeles Airport Marriott Hotel that coming Friday. I grab a BREATHE T-shirt and a fact sheet about emission controls and mark my calendar for that coming Friday at 8:30 a.m.

Planning ahead for what I anticipate to be brutal rush-hour traffic, I leave for the LAX Marriott at 7:30 a.m., joining the legions of commuter cars that make emission controls so important to our fair city. I’m the first from BREATHE to arrive at 8 o’clock, and I scan the business suit-clad crowd for a familiar T-shirt.

It’s a good thing I show up. Julia had hoped for and envisioned a large volunteer contingent in BREATHE LA T-shirts, so that we’d be visible and have an impact, but other than me, only one volunteer shows. Her name is Lauren, and she tells me that she’s a 14-year old Harvard-Westlake student going into her Sophomore year. A youthful ray of light in a sea of serious suits, Lauren tells me that she discovered BREATHE LA through VolunteerMatch, and though she had never given any previous thought to air quality, she decided that it was a good cause and started helping out in the office. find seats with a few BREATHE staff members and settle in for the CARB hearing to consider “approval of the Proposed State Strategy for California’s State Implementation Plan for the Federal 8-hour ozone and the fine particulate pollution Standards.” Yeah. I don’t know much about the science or linguistics behind this stuff, but the human implications are clear. Here are a few statistics from one of the hand outs at the event:

Air Pollution is responsible for 5,400 premature deaths, 2,400 hospitalizations and 980,000 lost work days annually.

70% of airborne cancer risk in Southern California is directly attributed to diesel engines in the basin.

80% of emissions are not under local control (ships, trains, trucks).

After the two-hour presentation, attendees are invited to express their views, a process that Lauren and I were told could take hours. We decide to pop over to a joint event at the Sheraton Gateway just down the block, an environmental justice briefing featuring displays on clean technologies such as fuel cell cars, plug-in hybrid cars, electric lawnmowers and leaf blowers. Interactive and thought-provoking, it’s a well-deserved prize for having endured the early-morning hearing.

Taking a few minutes to grab our complimentary lunch, Lauren finally has a chance to tell me about herself and her thoughts on volunteering.
Born in South Korea, Lauren moved with her family to the US when she was two-years-old. She tells me that she’s always been concerned about the environment, but hadn’t really thought to take action until she stumbled across BREATHE LA, which piqued her interest as a citizen. She started thinking about smog and traffic and decided it was “just gross.” Her father told her that at peak traffic hours there are millions of cars on the road in LA, which Lauren says is “pretty intense,” and if she can “do anything to kind of change that a little bit that would be helpful.”

She began volunteering solely to fill her mandatory community service hours at Harvard-Westlake, but she insists that she now anticipates always making time to volunteer.

“Every time I do it, I feel really good about myself, helping the community.”

She tells me that a couple of years ago her birthday fell on Thanksgiving, and she chose to spend her day serving meals to the homeless rather than celebrating at home.

“I’ll definitely do this for the rest of my life.”

After lunch, we head outside to check out the clean technologies on display. Oddly enough and totally randomly, one of the guys making presentations is an old friend of mine from high school, Russell Vare, who works with the California Fuel Cell Partnership. He tells us that the CFCP is a public/private partnership of auto manufacturers, energy providers, government agencies and fuel cell technology companies working to commercialize hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles.

Russell’s focus is hydrogen infrastructure in Southern California, in other words: Ways to make refueling easier and simpler when these cars come to market.

“Right now the technology is still being tested,” he explains. “Safety is the first element looked at, so we work with local permitting agencies and fire agencies to ensure that the technology is safe, and work with the energy companies looking at different sites where we can place refueling stations that will make it convenient for the future drivers of these cars.

“The reason why we want to use hydrogen is because it can be made renewably, it can be make carbon-free, and you can make it from virtually anything. Most hydrogen today is from natural gas, and is used to make gasoline cleaner. You can make it from sunlight and water, or wind power and water, you can make it from algae, bio-waste. When you use it in a fuel cell you’re not burning the fuel, you’re converting it electrochemically, so you get two to three times the efficiency as a normal car and water is your only emission from the tail pipe.”

A Public Policy major, Russell focused on energy policy law at UCLA. He’s been working with the California Fuel Cell Partnership for the past three years, and tells us that “Infrastructure is one of the key elements to getting any new, alternative-fuel vehicle on the road.”

He asks what I’m doing there, and I tell him about the Volunteer Chronicles project.

“Do you volunteer?” I ask him, and he reveals that he used to volunteer for the Midnight Mission. Once a week, for two hours at a time, he’d help out in their kitchen getting down and dirty, mopping, picking food out of drains, and cleaning up in general.

“It was humbling, I didn’t do any cooking or serving, but it still felt nice to contribute and give something back.”

He did it faithfully for a year, but stopped when things became too complicated with paperwork to continue.

“We never think we have enough time, but then you just carve out a couple of hours a week and seem to find the time. It made a big difference for me,” he says, telling me that he wants to volunteer somewhere else again, and is looking for his next opportunity.
“It humbled me because it made me realize that all work is important and all people are important, and I need to get knocked down off my high horse every now and again.”

After snapping his picture, I thank Russell and Lauren and head home and contemplate what I’ve learned, both about clean air initiatives and the spirit of volunteering.

If you would like to get involved with BREATHE LA, your help and support would be hugely welcomed. Opportunities include assisting in-house with Communications and Marketing, Research and Program Development, Blogging, and just general administrative and office support. Attending events such as Public Hearings is also greatly appreciated.

For more information, contact Todd Sato or Julia Robinson Shimizu.