Shadowing Redlands's Volunteer Corps

Design Director David Kidd followed Staff Writer John Buntin as they experienced life as a volunteer in Redlands, Calif., a place where volunteers take on jobs the city can't afford.
by | April 4, 2011

It's not news that the past few years have been rough on local governments. And the forecast is for more of the same. To compensate for a lack of funds, the city of Redlands, California has turned to a corps of volunteers to provide services that the citizenry is no longer willing or able to afford.

John Butin and I recently spent a few days in Redlands, observing the volunteers in action, I with my camera, and he with his laptop and notebook. We were primarily interested in how the police department was coping. During the course of our stay we rode along with a police volunteer as he raced from one nighttime call for help to another. We also sat quietly with a group of officers, hoping to observe and stop an illegal gun sale that never went down. At speed with lights and siren blazing, or motionless in the dark, both were equally exciting.

The next day we took to the air, in a small plane operated by the force. The 1967 Cessna was purchased with confiscated drug money and flown by volunteer pilots, many of whom are retired officers. The weather was Southern California beautiful and we could see for miles. Happily, the only action that day was a malfunctioning home alarm. We circled overhead as officers on the ground checked the place out. After a quick tour of the area, we were back on the ground and headed for our next appointment with a couple of volunteer park rangers.

At the edge of town there is a broad, dry riverbed that the locals refer to as "the wash." It is a wide, rough and rocky expanse of nothing. But somehow, it is also quite beautiful. That day the two rangers, on horseback, were to make one of their regular trips into the wash to check things out. The wash is attractive to teenagers looking for a place to hang out, off-road enthusiasts who shouldn't legally be there, and a growing population of homeless.

Having observed the workings of Redlands's volunteer finest on foot, in cars and aloft, the most interesting part was still to come. It had been decided earlier that the best way for us to keep up with the rangers-on-horseback was for John and I to ride along on off-road Segways. I didn't know there was such a thing.

An off-road Segway looks just like the Segways I'd seen at the mall, only with big fat knobby tires. I was skeptical.

Astride their trusty steeds, these rangers (with their uniforms and official-looking hats and sunglasses) were the picture of Western authority. John and I, balanced on our Segways -- not so much. I was dressed in my usual photographer getup: jeans and untucked shirt. John would have been more at home waiting in line at a Starbucks in Princeton, New Jersey: pressed khakis, light blue dress shirt and tie (see left).

We began our decent into the wash. Following a well-worn trail, John and I had little difficulty keeping up. We were a parade of horse and rider at the front and back, with Segways in the middle.

Even as the trail became rockier and narrower, John and I were able to stay upright. I fell once while trying to cross a ditch. Actually, I jumped off before I would have hit the ground, a little embarrassed, but happy to have saved the camera from damage. Up to that point, if I wanted to take a picture, I would stop first, maybe even get off. I thought I was doing pretty well. Until I noticed that John was somehow able to take notes as he bumped along.

The trip down went as well as could be expected, with only that one unplanned dismount. The trip back up wasn't so easy, at least for me. It turns out that a Segway can carry my bulk over rough terrain when gravity lends a hand. But asking the little machine to carry me uphill was asking too much. I fell on my face several times. I was in pain, embarrassed and envious of John's ability to not only make it without falling, but to do it while taking notes, tie casually flung over a shoulder.

I had my eye on him. And I watched as he was flung to the ground, done in by a rock not much larger than my fist. It was soon clear that he was not really hurt, just very dirty. I resisted the temptation to take a picture while he was struggling to compose himself. I even accused him of falling on purpose, just so I wouldn't feel so bad about all of my spills. He insists that was not the case. I want to believe him.

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