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Home / Focus / Community Giving & Volunteers Aug. 2007 / Volunteers connect interests with altruism

Volunteers connect interests with altruism

As a volunteer captain, Patricia Fry oversees the volunteer ushers at the Orpheum Theatre in downtown Phoenix.

Retired educator JoAnn LeBus spends one day a week as a volunteer at the Phoenix Art Museum. She feels the need to give something to the community.
But LeBus volunteers for another reason, too. She loves art.
“People think it’s just this altruistic thing,” LeBus says. “Actually, that’s not the biggest part of it.”
For LeBus, the biggest part is being in the presence of artworks by the likes of Frida Kahlo and Arizona’s own Philip Curtis. As it happens, LeBus is not alone. Volunteers not only go where they’re needed; they go where their interests and passions draw them. Art lovers volunteer for the art museum, animal lovers for the zoo and theater lovers … well, you get the picture.
LeBus, a longtime Phoenix Art Museum member, began volunteering seven years ago.
She not only likes art. She shares her appreciation of it with the public. Docents, specially trained volunteers, usually lead the formal tours at the Phoenix Art Museum. But LeBus, one of the museum’s 400 “community volunteers,” often takes charge of school groups.
“For those of us who were teachers, it’s just great,” says LeBus, who has a doctorate in early childhood development.
When LeBus gives a tour or talks about the paintings on the wall, she doesn’t wing it. She reads up on the exhibits and the artists.
Along with greeting visitors, she will fill them in on the history of a painting they happen to be looking at — or the artist who created it.
While LeBus may be better read than some of the museum’s community volunteers, they are all lovers of art, says Jennifer Totemchochaiyagran, who heads the museum’s volunteer office.
“They want to be around art, and share the art with other people,” Totemchochaiyagran says.
Caring for the giants
Nona Paulsen, on the other hand, wants to be around turtles — or more accurately, tortoises. A retired state employee, Paulsen tends to the giant tortoises at the Phoenix Zoo. These include Galapagos and Aldabra tortoises. As expected, they move slowly and, often, not at all. They have names like Peter, Ralph and Mary. They weigh hundreds of pounds.
Paulsen welcomes the task of tending to them.
She picks up after them, cleans their ponds and feeds them, in addition to scratching their necks.
“They like to get their necks scratched, because in the wild there are birds that pick at their skin,” Paulsen says.
Like LeBus, Paulsen welcomes the chance to tell visitors about the exhibit. And she stands ready to field frequently asked questions, including: “Are they alive?”
Sometimes, she says, an onlooker will shout: “Look, it’s a big rock!”
But when Paulsen hauls out the food, the tortoises are worked into something of a turtle feeding frenzy. They are roused from their shells and crawl at top tortoise speed toward the fresh leafy greens and hay.
Volunteers Lorenia Muñoz and Amanda Vitt share Paulsen’s love of animals. But their zoo beat is a bit more fast-paced. They welcome visitors to Monkey Village and explain the exhibit’s do’s and don’ts. The main attraction is the squirrel monkey. Here, visitors enter a large enclosure. They watch squirrel monkeys leap around on nearby trees and scamper on ropes directly overhead — jumping around and acting just like … little monkeys.
“These primates are so interesting,” Muñoz says. “If no one’s here, we just sit here and watch them play.”
Unlike many volunteers, Muñoz and Vitt are not retirees. Muñoz, 43, is in nursing, but her love for animals has prompted a career change.
“I’ve actually just put in applications at all kinds of pet resorts,” she says.
For Vitt, 23, being around animals ties in with her professional interests. She is finishing a degree in environmental biology at Arizona State University. She volunteers during the day and leaves after-hours for homework.
The attraction of a good attraction
Patricia Fry, on the other hand, volunteers for the nightlife, especially when it takes to her to the Orpheum Theatre in downtown Phoenix, as well as the Phoenix Symphony Hall at the Phoenix Convention Center.
Volunteering at these venues, she says, is “the best thing that ever happened to me.”
And a lot has happened in her life. Before retiring, she was a successful businesswoman. She circled the globe on an ocean cruise, becoming a member of The Circumnavigators Club.
Fry first volunteered as an usher for the Phoenix Symphony in the 1980s. She began ushering at the Orpheum — which, like Symphony Hall, is run by the Phoenix Convention Center — after it was restored and reopened in 1997.
At the Orpheum, Fry has been promoted to a captain, a volunteer who makes sure the ushers know their battle stations and report to them on time. She doesn’t sugarcoat why many people volunteer for the Orpheum.
“They come to see the show,” Fry says. “We do not kid ourselves that they don’t.”
At the Orpheum, the ushers are welcome to enjoy the act — once the paying customers are seated. Ushers can seat themselves 15 minutes after the show starts, if they can find an open aisle seat. If they can’t, it’s standing-room only for ushers.
On a recent night, a dozen or more ushers took up positions at the doors and portals, including Liz Beba, a retired school teacher. She says she likes the type of music on the night’s bill — an upbeat Jamaican-style act.
As Beba greets theater-goers and shows them into the auditorium, she talks about why she volunteers. It’s not just because she like the shows, though she does.
“Those are definitely the perks of the job,” she says.
But she adds that volunteers are the backbone of a community.
“Without volunteers, this county would probably grind to a halt,” Beba says.
Volunteer coordinators count on the civic-minded people like Beba. But they also know the attraction of a good attraction.
“The ones that come and stay are the ones that love animals,” says Phoenix Zoo volunteer administrator Sharon Biggs.
There is one perk the zoo’s 300 volunteers don’t get: free admission during their off hours. All volunteers have to pay for zoo memberships, though they get a discount, Biggs says.
Chances are they’d join anyway. As volunteers, though, they can interact with animals and people in ways they couldn’t otherwise. Some volunteers put on puppet shows starring — in puppet form — everybody’s favorite zoo animals. Others volunteers give tabletop presentations with live birds and other zoo inhabitants.
Volunteers also get to go behind the scenes, to care for animals like tortoises.
But Biggs adds that some people who want to volunteer get the wrong idea — that zoo animals are cuddly creatures. It sometimes shows up on applications, when people put down why they want to volunteer.
“There are people who would like to come in and play with the tigers. And we don’t do that,” Biggs says.

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