Ties That Bind - Part IV
Seniors receive two key benefits from service
- legacy and health
By Bret Bradigan
It wasn't going well for Chatel
Powell on a sunny March morning. The unwieldy length of the fly
rod was hard for her to wrestle into regular rhythms. Her wrist
would bend, and the fly line would flop, rather than unfurl.
Ray Johnson, a retired school teacher and regular visitor to
the classrooms of Chaparral High School, worked with the sophomore
girl for a few moments. "Make sure when you're doing a forward
cast, that the loop is strung out, so the line will pull itself
out," he said. Sure enough, after a few moments her casts
become more rhythmic, the rod tip sending an iridescent arc of
line shooting through the guides and out onto the school's lawn.
"These are rods, not poles. What's the difference?"
he asks. No one answers. "Poles are made of a willow branch,
rods are made special for fishing; you don't just find them
growing on a tree," he answers himself.
Johnson has handcrafted, or helped handcraft, several thousand
rods, most of them as a teacher for volunteer projects for fly
fishing clubs, school classes, and for neighborhood kids. Though
it is unlikely that these students, on this particular day, will
take up fly fishing with the same passion and purpose that Johnson
does, they do learn to appreciate his intent, one that is informed
by the experience that greater rewards are to be found in service
They also learn that it takes a tremendous amount of direct involvement
from thousands of people to make Ojai run.
"It's really cool of him," said Noé Rodriquez,
a senior at Chaparral. "I go fishing with my dad, and someday,
when I'm a dad, I'll be able to teach my son how to fish."
Powell said, "I like helping people. It sets yourself up
as a role model."
The No. 1 indicator of people being involved in their community
as adults is their having being involved as youth, according
to Robert Putnam in "Bowling Alone." "Those of
us who were involved in youth groups or did youthful volunteering
are half again as likely to donate to charity as adults and twice
as likely to volunteer as those of us who were not so involved
as youngsters," he writes.
And for Powell and Rodriguez, despite being perceived as "at-risk"
students by their enrollment at Chaparral, a continuation school,
this bodes well for wherever they end up as adults. Powell played
track and field and has been a cheerleader; Rodriguez played
recreation league basketball. And regular visits from community
volunteers such as Johnson to their classroom enhances their
chances of success.
"The Children First Story," by Robert D. Ramsey, details
how St. Louis Park, Minn. was facing an onslaught of trouble
related to the decline of its social capital in the early 1990s;
teen drug use, gang activity, racial tensions, dysfunctional
families and lagging traditional values. The school superintendent,
Dr. Carl Holmstrom, spoke about this at a Rotary Club meeting
The focus of the speech was on
how "we have become a self-centered society perpetuating
ourselves as adults and, then if there's time left, we deal with
our children. We point blame at everybody and everything else
and take little responsibility ourselves. The deterioration of
the family is a major impediment for young people. And while
some children do receive the support they need, the achievement
gap between groups of students with supportive homes and those
without is widening."
The speech struck a nerve, and the Rotarians offered to donate
money, but Holmstrom turned them down because there was no plan
in place to spend it. He challenged them, instead, to donate
not just their money, but their time. So the Children First Initiative
was the formal response to that challenge. It joined forces with
the Search Institute, which had developed the 40 developmental
assets; the more of which were present in a child's life, the
better their chances of succeeding in life and in the pursuit
The Rotary Club of Ojai has adopted that Children First Initiative
as a service project, and has enlisted the aid of a dozen or
so community leaders and groups under the direction of Kym Pietsch.
The infectious nature of altruism is at work with Johnson's fly
rod building or fly tying classes, as it is with the Children
First Initiative. People do good for others because others have
done good for them. "People of the community tend to try
harder to live lives of quiet asset-building because others are
watching. Expectations can be a constant source of self renewal,"
according to the Children First Story.
A growing body of evidence also suggests that active, engaged
senior citizens such as Johnson get as good as they give.
"Social capital might actually serve as a physiological
triggering mechanism, stimulating people's immune systems to
fight disease and buffer stress," according to Putnam.
A dozen large studies during
the past 20 years have shown that people who are socially disconnected
are between two and five times more likely to die from all causes,
compared with matched individuals who have close ties with family,
friends and community. Other studies have linked lower death
rates with membership in voluntary groups and engagement in cultural
activities. In fact, if you belong to no groups, joining one
group can cut your chances of dying within the next year in half.
Sometimes these medical findings are counterintuitive: researchers
at the Carnegie Mellon institute have found that the more social
ties you have, the fewer colds you get.
These findings are being put into practice. Roger King wrote
in a 1996 article in the Gerontology Manual: "Positive adaptation
leads to successful aging, This is characterized by involvement
in activities that are of interest and are enjoyable; good health,
social interaction, meaningful life, continual quest for new
knowledge, skills and growth experiences, and sufficient financial
resources. Negative adaptation to losses results in the absence
of the above qualities to varying degrees.
"Of the unlimited types of leisure activities the elderly
may choose to engage in, volunteering is unique in its integration
of a broad range of benefits for its participants."
The seamless flow from working life to retirement does have its
advantages. Johnson has learned this because he keeps in touch
with several of his former students, including one standout athlete,
Gary Hall, who was the starting safety for three Rose Bowl teams
at the University of Southern California and is now a top officer
with Morgan Stanley Dean Witter.
"So many of them were just outstanding people. The satisfaction,
for me, was in getting to know them. That makes you feel good.
Gary Hall drove all the way up here to play golf with me."
Another memorable experience was teaching Billy White. "He
was just the best athlete, all through junior high through college;
MVP of every team he ever played for, even though he was only
5-feet, 4-inches, 120 pounds. He now teaches special education,
and the kids just adore him."
Johnson should recognize that look of adoration. He sees it in
the faces of the Chaparral students when he pulls up alongside
the walkway in his shiny truck, their attention turning away
from the classroom toward the rod-builder, then back to each
The Ojai Valley News
to the news
RODRIGUEZ receives casting instruction from volunteer Ray Johnson
on the Chaparral High School lawn.