Monna Dingman never backs away from a challenge, or a child.

Santa Ynez Valley’s 2019 Youth Volunteer of the Year is known for including a growing number of families in The Los Alamos Foundation programs she co-founded with her partner, Anne Little, providing creative outlets for Los Alamos youth, jobs for teenagers, and respect for community elders while embracing each person’s unique skill set, dreams and history.

“There’s always something we have to give, something you have that someone else needs: time, treasure or talent. And it’s not like if you give, it leaves you. These things are limitless. It’s like lighting candles. From one candle, you can light 10 others, and from each of those, 10 more. None of the flame diminishes, so it’s a no-brainer to volunteer,” Dingman said.

Raised in Whittier and Oxnard, Dingman bounded east for a life of adventure as she pursued her bachelor’s degree in Florida and her master’s in New York where she established herself in the mental health profession.

“After 20 years shoveling snow, we said, ‘Let’s go back to California,’” Dingman recalled with a light-hearted laugh.

She and Little landed in Santa Maria 23 years ago. Three years later, they relocated to Los Alamos where Dingman put herself to work in the community. She served on the board of The Four-Leaf Clover Foundation which supported local 4-H clubs, and on the St. Anthony’s Church Council.

It was as a volunteer distributing food with People Helping People through St. Anthony’s that she saw another opportunity to give of her time and talent.

“I met a lot of families and their kids through that program, and I realized there’s lots of families in Los Alamos who were really living on the edge, classic paycheck-to-paycheck, only sometimes there wasn’t even a paycheck,” Dingman recalled.

There were no summer programs for youth in Los Alamos at the time, she said, and the shortfall was especially difficult on families with limited resources for childcare.

“You could see these families are all great families who really care about each other, who work hard, who want the best for their kids, but resources are limited. A lot of parents are working or they don’t have transportation — there’s only one bus and it only comes once in the morning and once at night — so it’s not easy for people to get out and do other things,” Dingman said.

In 2008, The Los Alamos Foundation was established “to preserve and promote the rich history and culture of our community and to serve those who live and work in Los Alamos and our surrounding communities.”

They began with a music program for 6 to 8 year-olds, then added an oral history project to connect seniors with youth to share and preserve the stories of Los Alamos. In 2013, the Summer in the Park program was born.

“It seemed like big kids and little kids can work together. The big kids really get a kick out of having the little kids look up to them. They teach the little kids, provide guidance, and they learn why people do the things they do, how to handle problems, how to lead,” Dingman said.

Summer in the Park, which provides five weeks of free supervision to Los Alamos youth, also provides a paying gig for those teen leaders. Dingman joins a handful of adult volunteers to oversee the program and intervene as necessary.

“She teaches the staff to become leaders, to problem solve, and to think for themselves. She instills in them the idea that you never know what a positive difference you can make in the life if a child,” wrote Janet Olivera, who nominated Dingman and who serves as one of those adult volunteers.

The community has responded, both with donations that keep the program running, and participation at every level. In 2013, Summer in the Park employed five high school-age leaders to oversee 10 to 15 children per day. In its sixth summer, the program employed 18 teens serving up to 100 children per day.

“Every year, it’s exceeded expectations. We don’t ask any income information because we don't want any barriers, and now I have kids I first met in the music program working for us, or heading off to college. It’s fantastic when you know the time you spent with a kid meant something,” Dingman said.

That’s really all the thanks she needs.

“This is more fun than sitting back, retired. I like being part of the community. It’s such a special place. It’s a lot of work raising the money, but it’s more fun than you can imagine to know all these kids, to know all these families and be a part of it,” Dingman said.

She encourages others to volunteer, she said, merely by setting an example.

“You never know when you might be the person who makes a difference in someone else’s life. That’s what volunteering does for you. If ecology is your thing, you can pick up plastic straws from the beach. It may be a small thing, but it makes the place beautiful for the next person that comes along, and maybe they haven’t seen something beautiful in a while. That makes that place special for them in that one moment for them,” Dingman said.

For more information about The Los Alamos Foundation, visit http://thelosalamosfoundation.org

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