Volunteer Spotlight: Karen Hammer

Our March volunteer in the spotlight, Karen Hammer, is a world traveler, a yoga aficionado, a ballroom dancer, a gypsy, a hiker, and an adventure seeker who’s not afraid to get burned--even if there's only popcorn involved.
Our March volunteer in the spotlight, Karen Hammer, is a world traveler, a yoga aficionado, a ballroom dancer, a gypsy, a hiker, and an adventure seeker who’s not afraid to get burned–even if there’s only popcorn involved.

March 2015 volunteer in the spotlight: Karen Hammer

Occupation: Karen teaches Spanish for the local community college district. She works at the Clovis Community College Center, and the New Jersey native has been a Spanish teacher for 25 years–16 of which she has spent in the Fresno area. Although she is not Latina, Karen’s friends call her a “Latina wannabe,” getting into Spanish fairly late in life in an indirect way.

In her 20s, Karen lived in New York City, working for Arthur Murray’s dance studio, where she taught ballroom dance. “I really fell in love with Latin American music and the dancing,” she says. “So I became interested in the language kind of through the back door in that way. I moved to California at 29 and started studying Spanish. I thought coming to live in California that knowing Spanish would be an asset, and as it turns out it was, because it led my to eventual employment.”

What made you decide to come to California? “I had been out of the country for about three years, working, traveling, kind of living a gypsy kind of existence, and my sister had been living in California in Santa Cruz. So when I returned to the states, I visited her there and I loved it. I thought wow, this is great. I could stay here and go back to college here, and that basically was it. So I went back to school in Santa Cruz, got a degree in anthropology–not in Spanish–worked for an immigration attorney for a while, and then decided to apply to Peace Corps, because I’d always had this dream about joining it. So I went to Ecuador as a Peace Corps volunteer, and when I returned from Ecuador I got my first job teaching Spanish. Ever since then, I’ve been a full-time Spanish teacher, and my life has become much more boring and stable. I wonder how much I’ll miss how much you get from being in the classroom. It’s fun. When it stops being fun, that’s when I’ll think about something else.”

What do you like to do outside of work? “Well, I just got a letter in the mail the other day, a certificate actually, from the Sierra Club, telling me that it was my anniversary certificate that I had been in the club for 25 years. So one thing I do is I really like hiking, backpacking. I take yoga classes. That’s something I started doing some years ago because I thought I needed the flexibility, and now it’s an important part of my week. Typically I take classes at GB3, mainly because it’s an economical way to go about it, taking as many classes as I want throughout the week.”

Where have you been in your travels? “Before I got a job teaching Spanish, I traveled around the world, completely around the world. I did India, Nepal, and all that. But since I started working as a Spanish teacher, my summer travels have tended to be around more Spanish-speaking countries, because I’m always mindful that I’m not a native speaker, and I always need to be working on my language skills and learning about different cultures of the Hispanic world. So right now my travels are limited to the Spanish-speaking world, but I do try and finish those trips. After I retire, I think I’ll branch out more a bit to other countries again.”

How did you get started volunteering with Filmworks? “I was trying to remember, and I honestly can’t. They’ve been around for 13 years now, and I’ve been in Fresno for 16, so I don’t know how I first found out about them. I’m sure I read about them in The Bee, and then I got their news letter and at some point I read they needed volunteers and started volunteering.”

What’s your favorite thing about Filmworks? “Just one thing?! I’m not a true cinephile. I’m not one of those movie buffs who always goes to movies. For example, I really don’t like the big movieplexes like Edwards, so there’s a lot of things I like about Fresno Filmworks. I love the venue, the old theater. I like the selection of films that they show–foreign and independent that you won’t see elsewhere. And lastly, I like going there because I like seeing people that I know as well. If I go to a place like River Park, I feel very anonymous. I’m not really in my element. But if I go to a place like The Tower Theatre, it gives me that feeling that I belong to this community, I belong to a small town.”

What other types of films would you like to see at Filmworks? “I think the diversity of what they offer is pretty good. Since I’m not really a cinephile, I don’t have feelers out to know what’s playing at all the festivals, so I pretty much rely on the people on the board to figure that out and bring films. The other thing I do that balances out with Filmworks is that I go to CineCulture at Fresno State. When they first started offering it for credit I took the CineCulture course for my job for diversity training. So between the films I get to see at CineCulture and the films I get to see at Filmworks, it helps keep me up to date.”

What’s your typical volunteer experience like with Filmworks? “It’s kind of funny. Some years ago I wound up doing popcorn, because I don’t know, just because! It’s not something a lot of people like doing, maybe because of getting burned, but for some reason I love doing popcorn. So I usually volunteer to do popcorn if they need a popcorn maker. I also like working the door, because I like to meet people and greet them. It’s a lot of fun. I get to see so many people that I know, some that I haven’t seen in ages, they show up, they’re familiar faces. You show up to work but then you end up socializing and chatting with a lot of different people.”

What’s your favorite film that you’ve seen with us at the Tower Theatre: “One of the ones that I saw recently that I’ve enjoyed was “Force Majeure.” The funny thing about that film, when I saw it I remembered enjoying viewing it, but I didn’t think it was that memorable, but afterward I was remembering that film and I found myself recommending it to others, to skiers and hikers. I enjoyed it because it was interesting, it was thought provoking, and it was also funny in its dark humor way, so that helped. On Friday night when you are tired after a long work week, it really helps to see a film that’s funny.”

What’s the last movie you saw in theaters? “With a hiking buddy, he hardly ever goes to the theater. We went to Edward’s to see “Wild”. He was sick and getting over a cold and was unable to hike for a while, so I said, ‘let’s go see this film, because the scenery is really beautiful, and if we can’t go hiking at least we can go and see the scenery of the John Muir Trail.’ And so we went, and neither of us liked it very much. He was really taken aback, because he knew nothing. He hadn’t read the book and wasn’t expecting the drugs and the violence and the sex scenes. He found it troubling and distasteful. And the scenery wasn’t all that stunning either! So it wasn’t what we were looking for. But something about it . . . I went hiking a week ago, and there was a woman on that hike, an elder middle-aged woman who you wouldn’t expect to be doing a lot of hiking. She had read the book twice and had seen the movie, and she was so inspired by it that she was on a diet and had signed up with a local company to go this summer on a nine-day backpacking trip that includes climbing Mt. Whitney. So this story really inspired some people. It didn’t touch my heart, but it’s inspiring to hear that kind of story and to hear how this was a transformational experience in the life of the writer, and that may segue into some kind of transformational experience for other people. That’s pretty neat.”

What’s one of your favorite movies of all time? “I don’t usually buy DVDs, but I have one that I bought years ago, called “The Mission.” This is the film with Jeremy Irons and Robert DeNiro, this is DeNiro when he was young and hunky, and he had long hair and a beard. Oh my gosh! It takes place in South America in an historical setting in 1767, around the time the Jesuits are getting expelled from the new world because Spain deems that they have too much power in the new world. It has to do with the missions that are there, the division of the territory into Spanish colonies versus Portuguese colonies, and how that decision will affect the Native Americans in the missions there-whether they will be enslaved or not. It’s a fictionalized story but it’s based on historical fact, based on the history of that area. The music is by Ennio Morricone, an Italian composer, and it’s beautiful music. It’s a very dramatic story, beautiful scenery, and a very sad ending, but a very beautiful film.”

Filmworks thanks all of our March 2015 volunteers: Rita Bell, Leslie Bjerke, Lorna Bonyhadi, Richard Flores, Megan Ginise (intern), Karen Hammer, Neal Howard, Sarah Nixon, Carolyn Nolan, Andrew Ranta, Susan Rogers, Brijesh Sharma, Joan Sharma, Lorraine Tomerlin, and Jon Veinberg.


To meet our past volunteers in the spotlight, visit our volunteer page. Contact our volunteer coordinator, Gloria Burrola, to help at a future screening.