Volunteer Spotlight: Gabriela Duncan

Halfway through Gabriela’s junior year in high school, she plunged into docent training along with a couple of other students and several adults. Now this was eighteen years ago, and the reading, research, and writing requirements were much like a college course. Training commenced at the end of January, and by July, she was out on the front line conducting tours. After four years, which included her first two years of college, Gabi needed a break. Thankfully for us, she returned to the fold eight years later and is now back in the trenches helping to create advocates for history.

Clearly, Gabi has a strong affinity for the Homestead, and the compelling history that we have to share with the public as she embarks on her tenth year of service to the museum. The source of her high-powered motivation will be revealed as you read her responses to the following questions.

Gabi Duncan
Passionate people like Gabi inspire excitement for history!

At age 17, while attending Bishop Amat High School, you chose to not only volunteer at the Homestead, but immediately immersed yourself in the museum’s docent training program. Tell us about that experience.

I was a little overwhelmed with the program when I first started and nervous about the content. Being able to read everything, while at the same time understanding how I would use the information in my tours was a little daunting. What helped me stay motivated was the people I was surrounded with. There was always encouragement, discussion, and support when I needed it. At times it was hard to read everything after doing my homework but somehow I managed. It’s been 17 years so my memories are a little fuzzy.

It was one thing to travel to the Homestead from Hacienda Heights in your youth, but now, as a married adult, you commute here from Los Angeles. That reflects a special level of dedication. Just what is the ongoing allure?

Before moving back to Los Angeles, I was commuting from Orange County, and for a while and that was difficult.  Even my friends would ask me the same question, especially when I told them I did not get paid for my time. I admit at times I have struggled to get out of my lounge clothes and into my “tour clothes” on a Sunday afternoon. It’s not just the docent/volunteer staff that I’ve grown to love and consider an extended family, but it is also the joy and curiosity people experience after my tour. They expressed their happiness for taking the time to come and that they’ve enjoyed my tours. The oooohs and aaaaahs from visitors is the most rewarding part because it reaffirms I’m doing something right and making a slight impact on them – even if it’s just for an hour on a Sunday afternoon.

There are undoubtedly times when engaging friends or new acquaintances that the subject of your participation at the Homestead enters the conversation. How do you describe the historic site?

I usually tell them I provide guided tours at two historic homes, one built in the 1840s and the other in the 1920s. I like to take guests “back in time” to a world where cell phones, freeways, and televisions didn’t exit. To imagine what life would’ve been like for us in that time and how much it’s changed is pretty neat!

The Homestead interprets a century of history (1830-1930). Of the three primary interpretive decades (1840s, 1870s, and 1920s), please share with us which of them you find to be the most interesting and why.

When I first started I would spend very little time in the Workman House and spent the majority of my tour in LCN [La Casa Nueva]. As time passed, and I’ve grown older, the 1840s/1870s has truly grown on me. I find that period more intriguing than the rest of the periods because it is so unfamiliar to me. A time that was so simple yet so difficult and mysterious. I find myself spending more and more time in the Workman House than I used to and my tours are getting longer!

The Homestead offers a wide variety of volunteer opportunities. As a long-term veteran, what would you say are the benefits to someone committing time to this museum?

When I first signed up to volunteer, I actually wanted to work in Collections Care and was disappointed when I was told that there wasn’t a need in that area. [Then they asked] if I would be interested doing docent work. I was going to decline, but decided to go for it. My biggest fear was standing in front of people and speaking. Volunteering has enabled me to surpass that fear and helped me overcome my shyness. Now at work, I have no problem standing in front of 200 faculty and staff members to speak and I think that is a huge benefit made possible by the museum. A few added bonuses are the fact I’ve become friends with people from different backgrounds and they’ve share their stories with me. Yes, some of my museum buddies are 30-40 years older than I, but they have the BEST stories to share, life experiences, and knowledge that you couldn’t get from a peer the same age. And of course, there’s the Volunteer Appreciation dinner and the gifts – you always give great gifts!

Although a degree in history is certainly not required to participate, what sort of characteristics do you think a person must possess to be an effective docent?

Most importantly, a respect for history and the desire to want to share that with the public. They should also enjoy people and the diversity out there. No visitor is the same, some ask silly questions (although no question is ever a silly question), some try to touch everything in the house, and others stray from the group. To be an effective volunteer you have to be able to answer all those silly questions (as best as possible) with a smile on your face, gently ask them to not touch ANYTHING, and stop the tour to coral your straying guests. It means you might have to get out of your comfort zone, but because you respect and appreciate history, you’ll have no problem following through and protecting it for generations to come. Most importantly – have fun!


Thanks to Public Programs Assistant Craig Chyrchel for asking the “tough” questions! And just for the record, shy has never, and we mean never, been a word we’ve associated with Gabi!

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