WALNUT CREEK -- In the 13 years after the city's Walnut Creek Citizens Institute held its first eight-session course, some 500 residents have participated. And now, the upcoming 2013 program that begins Feb. 20 is nearly full.

"People are interested in knowing how the city works," says Gayle Vassar, Walnut Creek's communications and outreach manager. "It takes away the wall."

The Citizens Institute doesn't just provide a leg-up to peek over the barrier -- it aims to knock it down permanently.

"People who go through the institute do tend to stay involved," Vassar says. "When the library was opening, I sent out an email to CI graduates and had 50 instant replies from people offering to help."

The classes meet on consecutive Wednesday evenings, except for a final on-the-road tour where students become teachers and share favorite facts about their individual neighborhoods. Classes cover everything from where the money from parking tickets goes, to how development plans are made to exactly what goes on backstage at the Lesher Center.

Four years ago, Citizens Institute began charging a $25 fee for what had been a free course. The program is run mostly by salaried city staff. Vassar reports the total cost (for bus rental, custom shirts, refreshments and paper copying) is approximately $2,000.

"It's fun to show people what we do. It's fun to (hear) the public, who we work for, say, 'Wow, we didn't know you did that,' and 'The staff in the city is fantastic.'"

Vassar says these comments are like music to the city's ears, but adds that students include some who are "not big fans -- they may even have big concerns -- but they come away informed and excited."

Kristin Lanham, a Walnut Creek real estate agent who lives in the Park Meade neighborhood, let an empty nest and interest in becoming more involved in her community lead her to the Citizens Institute.

"My sons were away, so I had the time and thought it would be good synergy with my business," she says. "I'm selling the city: CI made me more knowledgeable about what's in the city."

Lanham gained an "in depth understanding of the forward thinking the city council has to do" and was surprised by the course's depth.

"I thought I'd just get an overview," she admits, "but they dove in to setting aside open space, running the city with budget cuts, cleaning our downtown from midnight to 6 a.m. ... Did you know that most of the money from parking tickets goes to the state, not the city? I learned that, too."

Vassar says the first institutes attracted more retired people, but now attendance is all over the map demographically, with most students age 30 and older.

"We did have one senior from Northgate High School take it as part of a senior class project," she recalls.

Lanham suggests it would be terrific to see more school-age students, but says the effect on her sons, who have not participated directly, is still significant.

"When my sons come home, they comment on how nice Walnut Creek is now," she said. "They recognize it's taken care of and they appreciate that it's safe, vibrant, beautiful."

The most popular class is a trip to the corporation yard.

"They're blown away," Vassar claims. "They visit the auto shop and see how police cars are customized; they see how signs are made; they hear about open space programming -- and we always hear about trees. Everybody has a problem with their next-door neighbor's trees."

Many graduates, like Sandi Jacobsen and Carla Ludwig, who both serve on the Park, Recreation and Open Space Commission, develop new ties to the city, Vassar reports.

Lanham has recently signed up to assist at four Second Saturday Spotlights. A part of Mayor Cindy Silva's Community Outreach program, the monthly outings feature tours, often led by CI alumni.

"Why do CI? Because it's fun," Vassar said. "Especially the last day, when they talk about facts, history, parades, or just what they treasure about their neighborhoods."

Citizens Institute
For more information go to the city's website at www.ci.walnut-creek.ca.us and click on the second item under "what's New" on the face page, about the institute.