ANTIOCH -- Settling into the driver's seat of a white Ford pickup, Ron Van Den Baard turned to partner John Thomas while leaving the Antioch police station lot and asked where they were off to first.
Thomas unfolded a large city map printout that Van Den Baard had marked earlier with a highlighter. First up: a residential complaint of a pickup on William Reed Drive that had not moved for sometime.
With that, the Volunteers in Police Services, more commonly known as VIPS, were on the move.
Van Den Baard, 74, is the VIPS lead for the field and emergency call-out teams, a role that has evolved into a full-time vocation for the retiree.
According to police, Van Den Baard has worked 3,500 volunteer hours since 2005, saving the short-handed department more than $81,000 -- and that doesn't include any additional time he spends answering questions on the phone and offering other advice.
"If he wasn't here, there would be a lot of things in the community that wouldn't get done," police Chief Allan Cantando said.
Though they don't arrest bad guys or engage in siren-wailing car chases, VIPS provide invaluable backup for Antioch police: handling tasks such as tagging and towing abandoned automobiles, placing radar trailers and decoy cars around the city and ripping down illegal fliers. They also are called out to provide traffic control at accident and crime scenes.
"It's just the idea that things don't need to be there,
The VIPS have become increasingly important the past four years as police staffing fell sharply in this East Contra Costa city, which is grappling with crime and budget woes.
Van Den Baard is on-call 24/7. So, when events -- such as an early-morning homicide on Jan. 21 -- occur, his phone often rings first. He worked well into the chilly morning directing traffic on Delta Fair Boulevard around the crime scene.
He also coordinates parades and special events, VIPS scheduling and training -- and even leads police station tours.
"Ron's there for me whenever I need him. He's a jack-of-all-trades," said Antioch police Lt. Robin Kelley, the program's manager.
Van Den Baard's contribution to Antioch and willingness to chip in earned him the Volunteer of the Year award in October from the Law Enforcement Volunteers of California.
It took awhile for Van Den Baard to find his volunteer niche upon retirement. He worked 45 years in the carpet- and linoleum-laying business, the last 25 years as a foreman.
A self-described workaholic, the lifelong bachelor moved from El Sobrante to Antioch to live with his younger brother, Phil, and sister-in-law a decade ago.
Not wanting to "be the type of person who sat around and did nothing," Van Den Baard searched for something to do.
He wanted to volunteer at an animal rescue in Tracy, but that was too far away.
"Besides, I'd probably end up taking all the animals home with me," he said.
A stint serving lunches at the Antioch Senior Center wasn't fulfilling, either.
A friend at the Contra Costa crime lab suggested he check out the VIPS program. The idea suited Van Den Baard, a former Eagle Scout and military police officer in the Marines who once aspired to be a Richmond police officer.
"He jumped in with both feet with VIPS and has been gung-ho ever since," Phil Van Den Baard said. "He's always been responsible and followed the law, and he doesn't like it when other people don't."
The humble, soft-spoken leadership that Van Den Baard shows in guiding his VIPS cohorts sounds familiar to those who worked with him.
"Ron's not a yeller, but he commands respect and gets his point across," said Mike Armstrong of Conklin Bros. Carpet in San Francisco, where Van Den Baard worked his last 10 years.
Those who know Van Den Baard marvel at his work ethic.
"There was one time recently where he was back in here a day or two after being in the hospital with pneumonia. He told me he had to check a few messages," Kelley said. "He is such a trooper, but at the same time, sometimes I have to say 'No, it's time for you to go.'"
Van Den Baard's calming presence has helped ease the expansion of the VIPS program the past few years. Its role grew after the layoffs of all 20 of Antioch's nonsworn community service officers.
Having more volunteers has "been huge" in freeing up patrol officers to handle higher-priority calls, Kelley said.
"We have a big part to play. If we don't do our job, there's an awful lot that wouldn't get done," he said.
Luckily for the department, Van Den Baard doesn't plan on quitting any time soon.
"I still enjoy it. I feel I have a lot I can give to the program," he said.
Contact Paul Burgarino at 925-779-7164. Follow him at Twitter.com/paulburgarino.
Claim to fame: Lead volunteer for emergency and call-out teams with Antioch's Volunteer in Police Services program; named Volunteer of the Year by the Law Enforcement Volunteers of California.
Quote: "Instead of complaining because something isn't being done, do something about it."
Hometown Heroes, a partnership between Bay Area News Group-East Bay and Comcast, celebrates people in the Bay Area who make a difference in their communities. Read about a new Hometown Hero every other week and watch the program on Comcast On Demand at Channel One-Get Local-Hometown Heroes. Do you know a Hometown Hero? Let us know about the work they do at HometownHeroes@bayareanewsgroup.com.
TO VOLUNTEER FOR VIPS
Antioch's Volunteer in Police Services program is recruiting for new field service volunteers. Applications are due March 15. Those interested are invited to attend an orientation at 6 p.m. March 4 in the Police Department's community room, 300 L St.