Volunteers come in many forms. They can be athletes, coaches, teachers, parents, grandparents, relatives, busy executives or students. Peter Gragnani, former New York City chef and current real estate agent, found his calling to volunteer later in life. After moving out to California to pursue real estate, he started working with several Los Angeles organizations and volunteer groups. Today, he works with the John Aaroe Group in Pasadena and volunteers with Community.2.0, a collaborative of local community organizations and churches, including Five Acres. In his free time, he enjoys golf, softball, movies, music and traveling. In his own words below, Peter shares how he came to volunteer, what it’s taught him, and advice for others who might be considering becoming a volunteer.
What prompted you to start giving back your community? A lot of things happened a couple years ago, that sidetracked me in many ways. I lost my job, my good friend passed away suddenly, and my dog of 14 years died. My fiancé and I also broke up at that time. I started to spiral into oblivion. But earlier this year in 2017, I decided to flip a switch, if you will. I decided to give back to the community as much as I can, and I haven’t looked back since.
How did your community work lead you to helping foster youth? A lot of foster kids don’t have parents or a good support system in their life. Having had great parents and an incredible support system, I try to use what I’ve learned to influence foster kids when I can. I see my younger self in some of these kids. My childhood was good, don’t get me wrong, but I was an angry kid sometimes. As I got older, I realized how lucky we really are, and that we have so much to be thankful for.
What advice or wisdom would you pass along to young people looking for a mentor or for people considering becoming a mentor? No matter who you are, where you grew up, how much money you have, who you know—as long as you have food on the table, clothes on your back and a roof over your head–you have it much better than a lot of people. Many foster kids don’t have that. So, I think it really does come down to having mentors and parents in every kid’s life. They are the foundation to any successful journey in life, whatever your goals are, or your vision in life.
What’s the most memorable thing a foster youth has ever told you? The young guy I’m mentoring now once a week, Guilio, said something recently that hit me like a ton of bricks. “You are kind of like a father to me.” I don’t have any children (even though I would love to have them), but hearing that was intense, eye-opening. Now I feel like I can’t let this kid down. I can’t let him turn into something he is used to.
If you could change one thing about the foster care system, what would it be? Altering the meds that some of these children are on. I’m sure some of them do need meds, but I think we over-medicate these kids, instead of trying to see what their issues are and having them work on them. That’s how you grow into being a man or woman. I grew up with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), but was never medicated and I figured it out. That’s the whole point–if you are given a crutch, you always rely on it and find excuses. That’s not the way to go through life.
How can busy people today, no matter their age, can find the time to mentor?
Learn More About the Impact of Volunteering
Volunteering impacts more than just the community; it turns you into an inspiration for others, can enhance your skills, help you gain more experience and most importantly, give children in need a sense of permanency. In Los Angeles County, there are 28,000 children in foster care. By grade 11, only 20% of foster youth are proficient in English, and 5% are proficient in math. In fact, 75% are performing below grade level, and by the third grade 80% have had to repeat a grade. Here are few reasons why volunteering is so important in the lives of young people:
Community Service Betters Your Community Simply by volunteering a few hours a month, you can have a huge impact with just a small investment of your time. Volunteer activities can include events such as park and street cleanups, local school projects, serving food at your local food pantry, helping with youth activities, and more. Volunteering in these activities will have high returns.
Volunteering Makes You an Example Volunteering not only makes an impact on the greater community, but it impacts your family and friends directly. If you have children, this is a great teaching and mentoring experience for them. If you can, do your best to find volunteer opportunities that you can bring your kids to, where they too can volunteer and help. This will teach them that giving back is not only the right thing to do, but helping others and the environment is investing in their future. It’s also a nice opportunity to create group volunteer events, which you and your friends can participate in to make an even bigger impact. With social media being so ubiquitous these days, group volunteering with friends can spread like wildfire, which creates positive word of mouth for you and your friends.
Volunteering Enhances Skills and Experience Many people don’t realize, but this is one of the most important reasons to volunteer. You may have seen terms such as “micro-volunteering” or “skills based volunteering.” These new concepts are proving to be the most valuable to volunteers and organizations. Micro-volunteering or skills based volunteering means taking the skills you possess (often through your work experience) and applying it to a volunteer opportunity in small increments of time.
The Volunteering Program at Five Acres has been core to its mission since its founding. Volunteers or “Special Friends” as they are called, develop a one-on-one relationship with a child at Five Acres through regular visits and activities. Forming that bond is one of the most rewarding experiences for volunteers and children alike, and is a core element to Five Acres’ goal of building the child’s strengths on their pathway to safety, well-being and permanency. For more information on volunteering at Five acres, fill out their volunteer form. Or to learn more about volunteering or find local volunteer activities in your area, get connected with one of our partner organizations across the LA and OC region.
Why Not You?
Volunteering as a mentor, or becoming an informal mentor or volunteer to a young person from foster care is a valuable step in positively affecting your community. It only takes one caring adult to make a difference in the life of a foster youth. Find out how you can get involved at ToFosterChange.org.