CASTRO VALLEY -- At first glance, you can't tell the difference between Dennis Tom's Ford Crown Victoria patrol car and one driven by a full-fledged California Highway Patrol officer.
Just a small "volunteer" decal on the side of the vehicle sets it apart from those driven by officers who write tickets and enforce the laws of the road across a 500-square-mile area of unincorporated Alameda County.
And that's the point, says Tom, president of a 15-member senior volunteer group at the CHP Castro Valley office.
"We are a visual deterrent," the 61-year-old San Lorenzo resident said. "We cannot write a ticket. We can't point at somebody or use the PA to tell them to get off the phone, so we are just there to be kind of a lookout, and if we need help, we call in."
Tom and others 55 and older who pass background checks can don distinctive white collared shirts with a volunteer patch and assist the CHP with tasks in the office and in the field, from document shredding, ticket processing and answering phones, to distracted driver surveys and deploying radar trailers in areas getting complaints of speeding drivers.
One such area is a downhill slope on Center Street at Edwards Lane, near Creekside Middle School in Castro Valley.
On an overcast Wednesday morning recently, Tom and his volunteer partner, Brian Wong, carefully unhitched the radar trailer from their patrol car and set it up facing north on Center Street to remind drivers of the 25 mph speed limit and to let them know how fast they were going as they came over the hill.
After returning the trailer to the supply yard, the volunteer duo, longtime friends and 1969 Oakland High School graduates, headed to Strobridge Elementary in Hayward before the final school bell rings.
They took posts on opposite sides of the crosswalk, leaving the car parked a few feet away with the lights atop flashing without the siren. Students walking by peer inside. One young girl stopped to snap a photo on her camera phone.
"Did our school do something bad?" one boy asked Tom.
"No. Nothing bad. We are just here to protect you to make sure you boys and girls are safe," Tom said.
"How come your lights are on?" a young girl chimed in.
"So the cars will see them and slow down," he said.
Strobridge Principal Charles Hill is glad they're around. "Just having the patrol car alerts people to slow down. They can't send somebody all the time, but when they do, we appreciate it," Hill said. "It's a great way for them to continue interacting with the younger crowd, the younger group. There is mutual respect, so that our students can learn from them, as well."
Tom and his partner also can be found counting the number of distracted drivers and drivers without seat belts along Crow Canyon Road in Castro Valley. The volunteers help direct traffic at community events, assist with DUI checkpoints, drive documents and equipment to Sacramento, and provide senior driver retraining classes four times a year.
Tom said he heard about the volunteer program about three years ago from his customers at Allstate Insurance, where he still works.
"I always wanted to be a policeman way, way back. Protect and serve, that's what police do, so now this is the closest thing," Tom said. "I was always intrigued by what they do, how they do it, why they do it, and wanted to learn more about it."
Castro Valley's senior volunteer program is set to double in the coming weeks, with 15 new volunteers selected this month from more than 200 applicants, each committed to volunteer at least four hours a week, CHP officials said.
"This office will be a very well-oiled machine with the volunteers here to help us out," said Eric Morales, the public information officer for the Castro Valley office, adding that the volunteers free up the office's 38 officers to patrol the region.
What began with 15 senior volunteers at the CHP office in El Cajon in San Diego County in 1992 has grown to 700 volunteers statewide, officials said, with numbers varying office to office. Redwood City has 29 senior volunteers, while San Jose has 19, Oakland has eight, and Hayward has two.
Wong said he and Tom are "better than family," and volunteer Larry Evans, who picks up radar trailers on Wednesday afternoons, said, "We all enjoy the friendship of the other volunteers. ... We have time to do it and we want to give back a little bit."
Wong, who wanted to become a CHP officer as a teen in the 1960s and '70s, said that though he didn't meet stringent height and vision requirements at the time, volunteering allows him to finally serve.
"We get to drive the black-and-white," Wong said.
Added Tom: "It's our community service."
Ashly McGlone covers San Leandro, San Lorenzo and the Washington Township Health Care District. Contact her at 510-293-2463. Follow her at Twitter.com/AshlyReports.
Hometown: San Lorenzo
Claim to fame: Leads a group of 15 senior volunteers who help the Castro Valley CHP office with DUI checkpoints, senior driver retraining classes and the deploying of radar trailers.
Quote: "I always wanted to be a policeman way, way back. Protect and serve, that's what police do, so now this is the closest thing."
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