YCC kayak trip with Alcatraz in the background
YCC kayak trip with Alcatraz in the background

Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front National Historical Park Visitor Center is located right on the Richmond Bay. And it’s not like being right on the Gulf of Mexico, the only bay I’ve spent significant time on before, where you feel like a big salty dog is breathing in your face. The breeze is cool and fresh (if sometimes erring on the side of gale-force) and on a clear day you can see the Richmond Bridge standing sentry in the distance.

It can be difficult to picture, considering the pleasant quietude in the area now, but this was the boisterous location of the Kaiser Shipyards during WWII. This center of industry churned out one fifth of all merchant marine vessels during the war with shipyards open 24/7 to meet the massive needs of the US military.

When most Americans think of WWII heroes, we think of soldiers bursting into concentration camps or riding through ticker tape parades in 1945. While the importance of our soldiers in winning the war cannot be overstated, those soldiers would not have been able to fight the war at all without materials. When huge portions of young men were drafted into military service, they left a gap in the labor force. Henry J. Kaiser (and other captains of industry) got wise and begin recruiting women and minorities to fill the thousands of jobs vacated by young white men.

Last week I had the good fortune to attend a presentation by some of these women who stepped up over 70 years ago and still live in the Bay Area today.  The stories of the so-called Rosie the Riveters, for a welding maneuver I’m still trying to understand, are incredible. They rose to the occasion heroically, hitch-hiking across the United States, supporting their families while their husbands and brothers were overseas, and proving to society that women could perform jobs that everyone thought only men could do.

The most impressive thing to me was the positivity that radiated from the smiles of these now-legendary women.  They talked about how the experience taught them that they could do anything they wanted to in life, an attitude they have maintained towards all their endeavors. Our modern society has a lot of work to do towards gender equality in the workplace, but we owe an enormous debt of gratitude to the Rosies.

The Rosies are wonderful inspiration for volunteerism. Many of the reasons they chose to enter the work force are reasons volunteers choose to donate their time today. Not all of them were motivated by deeply ingrained altruistic patriotism, although many were. Many needed the high wages that were paid for defense jobs, and others had friends and family already working in the shipyards and wanted to be near the excitement. Understanding the reasons why individuals serve can help people like me design programs that will attract participants. Beyond simply working to keep the visitor centers open every day and staffing events, there are certain perks of volunteering.

For example, last week I got to go kayaking with a couple groups from the YCC (Youth Conservation Corp) at San Francisco Maritime National Historic Site. After we all signed our lives away, we loaded up the buses and traveled across the bridges to a foggy but bustling San Francisco. We got ourselves life-jacketed and paddled and not-quite-gracefully slid into the bay waters.  It was a blast to paddle around with the YCC high schoolers, a few of whom had never been in a manually-powered boat before.

It is my hope that our volunteers always gain something from their service, be that credit for school, trips to nearby attractions, or simply the thrill of the experience.

-Allison Joyce