My Volunteer Journal: Episode 8 – I Can’t Keep My Big Mouth Shut – Not Even for the Teachers of a Head Start Program

michelleobama Michelle Obama sent me an email.  I wish I could say it was a personal email, but it was a nation wide call to volunteer and serve your community on Martin Luther King Day.  The email directed me to the handy website www.usaservice.org where I could look up volunteer activities close to my home.  So I signed up…

On MLK Day I made my way to south LA to help clean up a Head Start Preschool. Michelle’s email worked.  I’ve never seen so many volunteers.  People from every walk of life swarming the preschool like ants.

After a quick speech the head of the program put us to work beautifying the school.  One group pulled up dead flowers and planted new ones.  Others cleaned the windows and as much of the dilapidated brown exterior as possible.  My group was assigned the large task of cleaning the interior.

I’m an ecogeek girl so I was a little taken aback by the large vats of bleach and water we were told to soak the toys in.  I prefer hydrogen peroxide.  I used the bleach solution to wipe down all the baby dolls and soak the building blocks. 

When I was little all my baby dolls and Barbies were blonde and blue eyed.  Kind of boring – especially when I would stage large parties, as it was hard to tell everyone apart.  Little did I know the skills I learned playing with blonde Barbie would help me ID people quickly at LA parties in later years.  But I digress…  This school had a baby doll for every color on the planet, which is much more interesting and fun to clean. 

Unfortunately, everything took an ugly turn.  After cleaning a tub of Legos I looked for a sink in which to dump my bleach water. Not seeing an available basin I stepped outside intending to travel to the next building. I was stopped right outside the door by the sight of volunteers, school children and teachers dumping bleach filled water into the storm drains. Why would this upset me?  Simple – the Los Angeles storm drains have no sanitation system hooked to them.  When something enters the gutters it goes straight into the ocean.  Bleach – gallons of bleach in the ocean!  I surf in that ocean.  I’ve helped clean up that ocean.  Dolphins, birds, fish swimming in bleach. No sir.

I walked into the next building, dumped my bowl in an available sink, and stepped back outside to try and prevent more bleach ending up in our waterways.  I politely offered to take the bleach basins from the volunteers and dump them in the sink. Suddenly, I was met with a sea of protest from both the teachers and volunteers. The head teacher got especially angry. Why would I waste time doing that? It’s harmless! It all goes to the same place! I tried to explain the LA sewage system, but was laughed at and rebuffed.  The dumping continued.  I was able to collect a few gallons of toxic water, but by my estimation around 20 gallons of bleach, paint, and other chemicals were dumped into the water system that day.

I left embarrassed.  Why couldn’t I just turn my head and keep my mouth shut. On the drive home I even imagined that I had dreamed up the LA storm drain problem.  Why would so many people debate me so vehemently?  When I got home I looked it up and found, to my disappointment, that I was right.  I then wrote the Los Angeles Department of Public Works and Sanitation and asked them to send educational materials to the school.

So I write this entrée with a sense of sadness and heightened awareness. One group’s cleanup can hurt another if you’re not careful.

Maybe I did a decent thing.  Maybe in the next few weeks an educator from the sanitation department will send literature to those teachers on hazardous waste in the waterways.  Maybe the teachers will be inspired to help the local environmental movement. 

Or, more than likely, I made a difficult teaching position more difficult today.  They already have too many kids, not enough resources, and few volunteers. They definitely didn’t need one more person, who doesn’t work in the education system, telling them what to do - even if she was right.