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Patterson High School kids to the rescue

PATTERSON -- Free labor from dependable, enthusiastic teens is a phone call away in the city.

These kids pour soda, stack chairs, interpret for limited-English speakers and perform crowd control. More than 200 are ready and willing to set up volleyball nets, sell souvenirs or run your "Guitar Hero" tournament, usually with a smile and always at no cost.

In fact, this small army of volunteers helped rescue some city recreation programs facing the ax because of budget cuts.

"They've done whatever they've been asked to do -- 'Organize this, carry that' -- whatever," said Peter La Torre, a Patterson Lions Club board member.

For their efforts, the teenagers get camaraderie, a handshake, a good feeling and sometimes, a real job.

It started last year when the school district recruited Patterson High School Tigers to establish PAWS, or Patterson Acts With Service. Whether bored or good-hearted, many students said "Why not?" and signed up.

Once word got out, service clubs, churches and City Hall started calling to request help. With students' contact information in a database, they can be rallied by e-mail and auto dial with a few keystrokes.

"They've filled up every slot needed for anything so far," said Phil Alfano, assistant district superintendent, who helped create PAWS. "It's pretty amazing."

Nicole D'Onofrio, a 17-year-old senior, suggested at a recent strategy meeting that cell phone text messaging would be even more effective. "It's honestly the best way to get a hold of teens these days because we always have our phones," she said.

Alfano said, "With technology, we can activate these kids quickly."

Since then, PAWS has helped staff Patterson's annual Apricot Fiesta and Fourth of July Parade as well as the community's Centennial Celebration and Pride Scholarship Fun Run. Students interpreted at back to school nights, raised money for needy children and pitched in at events held by the Rotary, Soroptimist and Lions clubs.

"You just call their leader, bring a list of the help you need and they do it," La Torre said. "It works extremely well."

A bunch helped lug electronic sound equipment back stage at the Apricot Fiesta, said entertainment chairwoman Karen Willard. "Those kids were awesome," she said. "They took directions excellently and were helpful and courteous."

Perhaps most appreciative are city parks and recreation officials, who had prepared to slice summer programs because of budget cutbacks. Instead, they rallied PAWS and saved monthly "skate the circle" events where the city closes its trademark roundabout to traffic in favor of skating, bicycling and wandering with simulated guitar competitions at nearby City Hall and community movies in North Park.

PAWS also preserved the "open stadium" program at the high school, drawing pickup soccer, flag football, volleyball and track events. And PAWS volunteers chipped in at the parks department's Family Fall Festival last month.

"Budget cuts forced us to look in another direction," said Jason Hayward, recreation coordinator. "Due to the PAWS program, we were able to run them. I would say they're indispensable."

Hard work and positive attitudes among some PAWS volunteers helped them land part-time jobs on Hayward's staff. For example, Jessica Carranza, 17, now referees flag football games for pay -- though she still volunteers with PAWS and the city's Youth Action Committee.

Alfano said, "The only problem is we have more kids than activities." So PAWS invited all community groups to a meet-and-greet Monday and received a request the next day for 20 volunteers to help with this year's Christmas parade.

PAWS is exploring mentoring at-risk students in lower grades. And district officials are considering combining volunteerism with curriculum into service learning programs more common on the East Coast, Alfano said.

For information on PAWS services and availability, call 892-7450, ext. 8.

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at gstapley@modbee.com or 578-2390.

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