November 20, 2017
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Taking a hands-on approach to volunteering in our local schools

  • Michael Knappman and his family are seen in the University Elementary School garden.

By: Stephanie Derammelaere
November 3, 2017

Michael and Sachiko Knappman have lived in Rohnert Park since the early 1990s and have been actively involved in their local community, even before retiring four years ago. Michael worked as a Physician Assistant in Public Health Clinics through Sonoma County Health Services for nearly 25 years and Sachiko worked at State Farm Insurance for 13 years before working independently, providing Japanese tea ceremony supplies to tea practitioners who lived outside of Japan. Today, one of their greatest joys is being involved in their grandsons’ school and volunteering their time in various environmental and Japanese cultural projects.

Both have been influential in building and maintaining community gardens. The couple was among the founding members of the Lydia Commons Community Garden in 2009 and still act as part of the coordinating committee of the garden. Eight years ago they had approached the city with a proposal to develop a community garden in a neglected city pocket park.  The city agreed to provide water and 30 plots were cultivated in the park off South Lydia Court.  About 20 families participate today and there are several plots dedicated to providing produce for the NOAH food bank. 

Several years ago, Michael Knappman also completed the naturalist training at the Fairfield Osborn Preserve, owned and managed by Sonoma State University and volunteered to lead public and school groups at the preserve. He is now in the process of also completing a 22-week training program to be a naturalist docent at SSU’s Bouverie Preserve in Glen Ellen. 

When the Knappmans’ grandson began attending school at University Elementary at La Fiesta two years ago, they started volunteering at the school and realized the need to incorporate outdoor education into the curriculum, especially with the close proximity to the Laguna de Santa Rosa. 

“It seemed so obvious to me that the school should make use of the Laguna as an outdoor classroom because it’s only a five minute walk from their playground to the Laguna channel,” says Michael. “So I promoted that with the principal and the teacher there and we were able to start, and I volunteered to lead the walks.” 

Using the story of Tiddalick adapted by Denise Cadman, in which a giant frog greedily drinks all the water from the Laguna, in addition to story board illustrations, the Knappmans explain the importance of the Laguna on the local habitats and wildlife. After hearing the story, the children walk to the Laguna to see the insects, birds and trees that live in their area and the students get a hands-on experience in environmental education. 

“We use the story as an introduction and then the following day we go out for a walk on the Laguna,” says Michael. “It’s a great introduction for the kids to understand that it’s a habitat for animals and insects and birds and trees. It’s a wonderful way to segway into the importance of the Laguna de Santa Rosa which is right there in their backyard.”

The Knappmans lead the school’s 230 students in walks every season of the school year (fall, winter and spring), leading one class at a time. With nine different classes in the school, the couple averages about one lesson and walk per week. 

“There are a lot of changes with the seasons, even here in California,” says Michael. “There are a lot of things to connect them to the cycles of nature. The teachers then integrate that into the curriculum they’re doing in the classroom.”

The school has not only embraced this hands-on approach to their curriculum, but also supported the building of a school garden this year with help from the Knappmans. Now each class in the school works and learns in the garden twice a week, and the Knappmans volunteer their time every week to help the teachers in this project. 

Sachiko Knappman first volunteered in her grandson’s education during his preschool years. Being from Japan, she introduced the children to Japanese culture and helped them make their own rice balls, samurai helmets and taught them origami. This was a natural progression from her volunteering on the Speakers Bureau of the Sonoma County Japanese American Citizen’s League that serves as an educational resource for teachers and civic organizations. The Speakers Bureau was established to educate the public about the Japanese American experience, particularly the mass evacuation and incarceration of 120,000 Japanese Americans in concentration camps during World War II. Speakers share the unique story of diversity and cultural interdependence between the Japanese American and Caucasian communities in Sonoma County before, during and after World War II to students from elementary through high school and college. 

Sachiko’s experience with the Speaker’s Bureau prompted teachers throughout the county to invite her to teach their students about Japanese culture. She teaches everything from tea ceremony demonstrations to Japanese history and gives presentations to about 2,000 students every year. 

“I’ve been doing this for about four years,” says Sachiko. “The students are really impressed by the tea ceremony practice. I also talk about inner depth. Tea ceremony is a spiritual practice. I talk about why I do this and how it changed me and I encourage them to seek much deeper inside. They seem to enjoy hearing about that.”

Sachiko is also on the Rohnert Park Sister Cities Relations Committee, which fosters “international understanding and friendship through exchanges of people, artifacts and ideas with citizens of foreign cities and develops an increased appreciation of cultural diversity in order to better understand one’s own culture.” Rohnert Park’s sister city is Hashimoto, Japan. Every year, the City of Rohnert Park selects one high school student through an essay application process and pays for a week-long trip for that student to travel to Japan. This year, the application deadline is November 13 and can be accessed at 

“In order to bring peace we need to get to know each other on a personal level, different people from different cultures,” says Sachiko. “I believe once we get to know someone as a person, people are people.” 



Engage seniors

Would you like to be a volunteer and visit one hour a week to help seniors engage more fully in their communities. Start volunteering with Caring Connections and help someone combat isolation, loneliness and depression. No previous experience is needed. Training and ongoing support will be provided by Jewish Family and Children’s Services of Sonoma County. Call Barbara at 707-303-1510 or


Like to cook?

Why not cook and serve your community at the same time. Food for thought Food bank is looking for home cooks who are available to work Mondays in the Forestville organization’s commercial kitchen. Volunteers must be available from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. For more information, contact Elisa Bake, volunteer program manager at 707-887-1647, ext. 103 or