September 24, 2009
When nearly 5,000 Bruins fanned out to paint, clean, weed and sweat at schools and parklands throughout Los Angeles during the first-ever UCLA Volunteer Day on Sept. 22, David Bloome couldn’t help but feel really satisfied. Three-decades-in-the-making satisfied.
As “commander-in-chief” of the event, Bloome toiled for months to bring together students, staff and faculty in a massive mobilization that would make UCLA history. But for Bloome, Volunteer Day was the culmination of a personal history that started in 1981 when he came to UCLA as a freshman.
A member of a Bruin family — his father, two brothers and cousins had attended UCLA — Bloome was so confident that he would join their ranks that UCLA was the only college he applied to, submitting his application with only a day to spare before the deadline and not even sweating while he waited for his admissions letter to arrive.
“The minute I stepped onto campus — the beauty of it, the architecture, I don’t know exactly what it was — I just felt this sort of mythic calling,” Bloome recalled. “Something like — when you come to the Ivory Tower, to the Emerald City, you are supposed to do something important.”
That sense of calling stuck with him, ebbing and flowing throughout his academic career. He started as a pre-med student, then switched to English and also developed a fervent extracurricular interest in the life and work of the late Robert F. Kennedy.
“RFK was this hero to me,” Bloome recalled. “I spent hours in the College Library reading everything I could about him. It emboldened me to do something important.”
His opportunity came in the form of an irksome academic rule: He wanted to take a beginner’s level Spanish class, but the rule was that he’d have to start at an advanced level because, although he knew hardly a word of Spanish, he’d taken it in high school.
Bloome decided the rule should be changed, and, in a campaign that took on the traits of a David-vs.-Goliath crusade, it was, but only after he stood up to interrupt an Academic Senate meeting to demand that a vote finally be taken to create a fairer process to take foreign languages.
“And that,” Bloome recalled, “woke me up to the power of one person making a difference.”
Heady from that experience, he graduated and went to work for the UCLA Alumni Association, where he started a program for alumni volunteers called Target Literacy. The program was commended by then-First Lady Barbara Bush. From there, he eventually moved to the School of Public Policy and Social Research, where he launched Eco-Heroes with undergraduates, who volunteered to give disadvantaged high school students an outdoor experience and become their mentors.
Meanwhile, he continued to visit the library, where he studied the history of higher education after “realizing that the organizing principle of educational systems was to create participant-citizens, leaders and heroes,” he explained.
In 1988, personal tragedy struck. His mother died. Soon after, both of his grandmothers and his stepmother died. Then later, his father was struck by a car and killed.
“I was really, really knocked off the path,” Bloome said. Remaining at UCLA, he fell into a scattered series of part-time jobs.
“My friends and family would ask, ‘What are you doing? You could be a doctor, a lawyer. There are so many things you could do. Why are you still at UCLA?’”
The answer, he recalled, was that even though he was reeling, he continued to believe that he “had this calling, wanting to see the university as a unifying center for the community.”
He started to venture again into the larger community, committing to one volunteer project a month, from reading bedtime stories to homeless children to working for the American Red Cross. Most significantly, he got involved with L.A. Works, a central clearinghouse for volunteers across the city, where he became a project leader and trainer.
He then tried to develop himself into a renaissance man by learning to ballroom dance, teaching kayaking, playing soccer, forming a dining group and a poker club. And still he persisted at UCLA, continuing to take various short- and long-term administrative positions, and talking with anyone who would listen to his vision of UCLA as a leader of the volunteer movement.
“I put my professional life on the line to follow my deepest passion and then finally, all the pieces fell into place,” Bloome said. “Barack Obama was on the verge of being elected president. Gov. Schwarzenegger had appointed a cabinet-level secretary for public service. And at UCLA, Chancellor Gene Block was promoting civic engagement.”
Bloome approached the Chancellor’s Office last fall with an idea to create a UCLA Volunteer Center. With support from then-Assistant Chancellor Antoinette Mongelli, who is now the center’s executive director, the idea was a “go.”
“Throughout my entire diverse, nonlinear professional life at UCLA, Antoinette continued to be supportive of me through all my ups and downs,” said Bloome, who is now campaign director of the center. “She is a kindred spirit. and I knew she was the right person who could quickly make this initiative a reality.”
Starting last December, they enlisted partners from all corners of campus to build an online portal, which launched Sept. 21, to foster volunteerism on campus and beyond. On Sept. 22, UCLA Volunteer Day brought to fulfillment Bloome’s three-decade vision to make the campus a national leader in volunteerism.
“The sense of fulfilling my calling is incredible. But this isn’t about David Bloome,” he added. “We are mobilizing our entire Bruin family, sending a strong message that people have to actively participate in the world. We are saying that at UCLA, people care and, given a bold challenge, can respond.”