This story is from the archives of UCLA Today, a discontinued publication.

Giving enriches lives of campus volunteers

PUTTING OTHERS FIRSTIn a year that saw a dark shadow pass over the nation, it would be easy to let the lingering pain of Sept. 11 and the memories of those we lost eclipse the joy of the holidays. So, as we bring this year to a close, it becomes especially important that we recognize the compassion of others and the giving spirit of special people among our faculty and staff who apply their talents to benefit others, with no expectation of getting anything in return. Let their stories light the way and lift our spirits this holiday season. We honor this year's Bruin Angels.

MEL CHEATHAM

If you mapped all the places where neurosurgeon Mel Cheatham has volunteered over the last 17 years, you would have compiled an atlas of horrors --places of death and suffering, besieged by war, ethnic cleansing and famine.

In Bosnia, under threat of a sniper's bullet, Cheatham did brain surgery in a church basement. In Sarajevo, he had to out-run heavy mortar shelling. In Somalia, he escaped an angry mob after medical supplies in a makeshift field clinic he set up ran out.

"It's amazing what you can do and where you can do it," said the 68-year-old clinical professor in neurosurgery, who now has a nearly full-time second career as a volunteer with World Medical Mission, served by 1,200 doctors in 58 countries.

Cheatham, many times accompanied by his wife of 43 years, Sylvia, has spent the better part of the last two years organizing medical missions in Iraq, Vietnam, China, the Congo, Uganda, Honduras, Siberia and the Dominican Republic.

"I feel tremendously blessed to have had these opportunities," said Cheatham, named the 2001 recipient of the "Footsteps of the Great Physician" award by the World Medical Mission. "Life becomes full when you begin to give it away. If one has been blessed with an education or a talent, and you give it away freely to someone, well, life doesn't get any better than that."

-- Cynthia Lee

MICHELLE KELLY

Michelle Kelly, a graduate student in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, wants to complete her dissertation within a year. But she is also on a nearly full-time mission to save the lives of abandoned rabbits.

"I was raised in the country and love animals," said Kelly who, soon after moving from Rochester, N.Y., to Los Angeles two years ago, headed to the West Los Angeles Animal Shelter to "see what I could do to help." She has since almost single-handedly saved scores of rabbits from almost-certain euthanasia.

In the beginning, Kelly recalled, "I had no special affinity for rabbits." But she noticed that, compared to the shelter's cats and dogs, "the rabbits' plight was more desperate," living in stacked cages in a cramped hallway. Using her own money and contributions from others, Kelly bought new cages and improved the storage area.

She visits the shelter daily to clean the cages and feed, groom and pet her furry charges, and drives the rabbits to and from a veterinarian for neutering, a procedure she often pays for herself.

Kelly also finds new homes for her rabbits, a daunting task. "For every one rabbit somebody wants," she explained, "five other people want to dump theirs." This year, Kelly has managed to find homes for an unheard-of 100% of the shelter's healthy rabbits.

"Animals are like children, very innocent," she said. "We have a moral responsibility to take care of them."

-- Judy Lin-Eftekhar

BOBBY OKINAKA

Bobby Okinaka, the Alumni Association's Web manager, has dedicated many of his weekends to documenting the experiences of Japanese-American veterans.

It began when Okinaka was shooting video in Little Tokyo three summers ago during Nisei Week. He was approached by the Go for Broke Educational Foundation, which in 1998 created the Hanashi Oral History Program to preserve the "hanashi," the stories of Japanese-American veterans of World War II.

Since then, Okinaka, 32, whose father was a sergeant major in the U.S. Army and was interned in the camps as a youngster, has helped document the accounts of 50 veterans from the 100th Infantry Battalion, 442nd Regimental Combat Team and Military Intelligence Service.

One of them was James Yamazaki, UCLA professor of pediatrics and an American POW from the Battle of the Bulge. Yamazaki calls Okinaka a "quiet, gentle guy," who impressed him by "volunteering to document some of the experiences that just don't come out otherwise."

The "telling of the story" is crucial, said Okinaka, who is looking for additional volunteers and hopes to one day produce a film on the 442nd regiment.

"It's a true American story, not just about being Japanese," Okinaka said. "I want everyone to know about it. We can learn from the history, so that we can help secure the civil liberties of people who are being affected by the events of today."

-- Marina Dundjerski

KIT SPIKINGS

Kit Spikings always dreamed she would one day work in a hospital. But life didn't take her down that career path. Until she found a way to follow her heart to the UCLA Medical Center.

"I can't be a doctor, and I can't be a nurse, but I discovered I can be in the environment I so love," said Spikings, who found her niche as a volunteer patient liaison in the ER. A UCLA staff member for nearly three decades, she is project manager for UCLA Alumni Travel. On Sundays, she returns to the hospital as a volunteer for the Spiritual Care Department, bringing the Host to and visiting with Catholic patients, among others.

In the unpredictable, chaotic world of the ER, Spikings offers a steady hand to traumatized patients and their frantic families. One grateful friend of a patient called her a "beacon of stability" when she tracked down the family of the patient who had no identification with him; the people who brought him in spoke only Japanese. "The challenge is unbelievable," she said "Mentally, it's exhausting." She was also there for a 90-pound woman in the final stages of cancer. "She held on to me, calling me her angel. But I deem these people my angels because of what they give to me. It helps me put my whole life in perspective."

-- C.L.

ARIANNE WALKER

A UCLA postdoctoral fellow, Arianne Walker has had a special connection to the deaf since the fourth grade, when she learned American Sign Language (ASL) to communicate with a deaf school friend. So proficient did Walker become in signing that she volunteered during high school and later, while an undergraduate at UCLA, as a tutor to deaf students at California State University, Northridge. She also taught religion at Temple Beth Solomon of the Deaf in Tarzana.

"Sign language is a beautiful language," Walker said. "It's a very visual, expressive language, capable of communicating things that the spoken language can't."

To become even more adept, Walker spent a summer at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., for formal training in ASL. As a senior at UCLA, she was a volunteer interpreter for deaf bicyclists participating in the California AIDS Ride.

After graduating with a B.A. in anthropology, she enrolled in sign language interpreter classes at Pierce College while tutoring disabled students at Mission Community College. Having earned her Ph.D. from the Graduate School of Education & Information Studies last June, she is currently working in a postdoctoral position in UCLA's Office of Undergraduate Evaluation and Research.

While Walker has found a new focus in educational research, she still wants to continue working with the deaf.

"Volunteering is incredibly important," she said. "Many people give money, but offering one's skills and time can be so much more meaningful."

-- J.L.E.

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