Bay Area researcher wins volunteer award

June 22, 2009 7:24:02 PM PDT
As part of the National Conference on Volunteering taking place in San Francisco, California's governor and first lady awarded service medals to two individuals and one company.

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California's Volunteer of the Year is a Bay Area researcher whose work outside his job has changed a community. It is the first time these medals have been awarded to recognize those who give of themselves in a big way.

"I actually started crying, I was so tickled and touched to get the recognition," award recipient Tom Zimmerman said.

Zimmerman day job is working as a scientist and inventor for IBM, but Monday, Zimmerman was honored for what he does in his off hours. He is California's Volunteer of the Year.

Zimmerman co-founded the program Extreme Science for high school students at the Latino College Preparatory Academy in East San Jose.

"It's been fantastic working with him. He just showed up one day and said, 'I have this idea, can I volunteer here,'" Dave Johnson of Latino College Prep said.

In one lab they build rockets, in another, robots.

"I wanted to take children and students who thought science wasn't cool and show them that science is cool and exciting," Zimmerman said.

The funding comes from a National Science Foundation grant. It is an after school program that also helps motivate kids in the classroom.

"All of the kids that we stated working with a couple of years ago graduated this year and are becoming science majors in the fall, the whole bunch of them," Johnson said.

It is that success that led Maria Shriver to choose Zimmerman.

More than 100 nominations were submitted to California Volunteers, the state service commission. That was narrowed to 13 finalists; then the governor and first lady chose the 3 winners.

"What we were looking for is someone who's had an innovative but tangible impact in their community," California Volunteers spokesperson Jairo Moncada said.

Zimmerman now hopes to expand his program to the college level as he helps inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers.

The two other awards went to a Southern California man who was named Nonprofit Leader of the Year and to PG&E, for the Business Volunteer Program of the Year.

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