When Pat Sowa was new in Pleasanton a couple years ago, she was looking to make connections. She read in the newspaper about the Make A Difference Festival occurring each January and decided to stop by.
"I had moved to Northern California from Southern California and I didn't know anybody and needed something to do," Sowa recalled. "I loved to cook, saw the world 'kitchen,' and thought that might be a good spot to be."
She approached the booth of Open Heart Kitchen, the nonprofit group that feeds the hungry seven days a week at multiple locations in Pleasanton, Livermore and Dublin.
"They were so friendly," Sowa said. "I was looking for a good purpose, and it all fell into place."
The Make A Difference Festival is being held on Jan. 18 at the Pleasanton Senior Center, 5353 Sunol Blvd., where dozens of volunteer groups will set up booths from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. The event previously took place at the library, but this year's venue allows for more offerings.
"Because the library's community room is temporarily housing city offices, this year's festival is moving to the Senior Center, which gives us more room," explained W. Ron Sutton, president of the local nonprofit Make A Difference, Today & Always, which produces the event. "That is why we are adding sections on wellness, and safety and emergency preparedness."
The expanded festival is well timed in January to help residents fulfill New Year's resolutions to live healthier; to become prepared for an emergency; and to volunteer in the community.
The event always presents a unique chance for residents of all ages to look over volunteer opportunities, talk to those who work with them and see what fits. Organizations run the gamut, from helping other people to animals to the environment and more.
"The Make A Difference Festival provides an easy way to 'get connected and stay connected' to our community," Sutton said. "We will have nearly three dozen organizations seeking volunteers for a wide variety of community service projects that will be of interest to adults, families and teenagers."
"You can find out in advance each group's mission statement by visiting www.mad4p.org and clicking on 'festival,'" Sutton added.
Sutton noted that while volunteering in the community is important, so is time spent with family. Participants will be able to sign a banner with a vow for 2020: "I pledge to spend 50 hours of community service and another 50 hours with my family."
The new wellness section will include a chance to learn about weekly "walk 'n' talk" sessions with World Walk to Wellness and to get nutrition ideas from Juice Plus. Stanford-ValleyCare will have information about its health services, and there will be representatives from Community Resources for Independent Living (CRIL), HERS Breast Cancer Foundation and Sandra J. Wing Healing Therapies Foundation, which provides different options for cancer patients.
The safety and emergency preparedness area will have 15 displays that include how to create a 72-hour emergency kit; making an emergency communications plan; packing up food, medical supplies, cash and important documents; caring for family mementos, and more. Representatives from Livermore-Pleasanton Fire Department and Pleasanton Police Department will have informational handouts, as will the American Red Cross.
Free seminars will be held throughout the event on two subjects:
* "Camping Out at Home" -- presented by CRIL.
* "How to Prepare for an Emergency" -- by Eden Information and Referral.
Sponsors of this year's event are the Pleasanton Library and Recreation Department, ACCUSPLIT Make A Difference Projects, Hively, Pleasanton Community of Character Collaborative, and Karlsson & Lane.
The festival is free, and everyone is invited to attend and learn about volunteering and more. The first 500 to arrive will receive tote bags from Stanford Health Services. People can contribute canned food at the site, a collection added when organizers heard that the Alameda County food bank is running low.
Another fun feature will be a police car and an armored rescue vehicle for families to explore.
Make A Difference had its roots in President George H.W. Bush's plea in the late 1980s for "a thousand points of light," encouraging people to volunteer in their communities, Sutton said. This led to Make A Difference Day, the nation's largest day of service, being established in 1992 on the fourth Saturday of each October. Locally, Sutton organized a Clean Up the Arroyo event.
"But this conflicted with (Pleasanton's) band day," recalled Sutton, "so we moved it to the weekend before."
It soon became apparent that January was a better time for a day of service locally, and Sutton's community service efforts are now organized under the nonprofit group, Make A Difference, Today & Always. Its programs include the Fourth of July celebration and the Ed Kinney Community Patriot Awards in addition to the Make A Difference Festival each January.
"It is probably the single best opportunity to see a wide range of ways to get connected with the community, all in one spot at one time," Sutton said. "It is the volunteer event of the year."
"The timing is good, too, in January," he added, "when people are thinking about how they might serve."
"I believe that people want to be active, to do something," Sutton said. "It's about people wanting to 'Get Connected and Stay Connected,'" which is the theme of the festival.
The volunteer organizations consider the annual event their best chance to recruit help.
"It goes back to getting connected," Sutton said. "I love people discovering how they can find a way to serve that meets their needs and the needs of the organization."
This is what happened with newcomer Sowa, who now goes three days a week to help out Open Heart Kitchen.
"I've met such nice people, I've met friends," Sowa said. "I just enjoy every minute I'm there."
"Volunteer people are special," she added.
Sutton emphasized that the volunteers are the fortunate ones.
"People have said, 'You're nice for giving.' And I said, 'It makes me feel good. Isn't that selfish?'" he shared. "I love when people can find things they love to do, and it uses their talents and goodwill."
Seminars are scheduled as follows:
* 11 a.m. -- SKIP (Safety Kept in Place) training by Eden Information and Referral
* 11:30 a.m. -- SKIP training
* Noon -- Camping at Home: Emergency preparedness for people with disabilities, by CRIL.
* 1 p.m. -- SKIP training.
Making a difference
The following nonprofit groups will be represented at the festival:
ACCUSPLIT Make A Difference Programs
Alameda County CASA (Court-Appointed Special Advocates)
Alameda County Fairgrounds
American Association of University Women (AAUW)
American Cancer Society
Asian Pacific Islanders American Public Affairs
Assistance League of Amador Valley
Blankets for Kids
City of Pleasanton Library and Recreation Department
Drivers for Survivors
Go Green Initiative
Guide Dogs for the Blind-Pleasanton Puppy Raisers
Kids Against Hunger
Livermore-Amador Valley Garden Club
Love Never Fails
Lynnewood United Methodist Church
Museum on Main
NAMI Tri-Valley (National Alliance for Mental Illness)
Northern California Special Olympics
Open Heart Kitchen
Pleasanton Community of Character Coalition
Pleasanton Lions Club
Reins in Motion
Senior Support of the Tri-Valley
Tri-Valley Nonprofit Alliance
U.S. Census Bureau
Valley Children's Museum
Valley Humane Society.