Season's Givings: Volunteers needed to perform Los Angeles County civil wedding ceremonies

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Rick and Jessica Garcia of West Covina kiss after they are married by volunteer Elizabeth Oakes at the LA County Registrar-Recorder’s office on Monday in Norwalk. The couple have been together for two years.

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Couples wait to be married in the LA County Registrar-Recorder’s office in Norwalk on Monday, among families and friends.

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Jimmy Vasquez and Rosalie Martinez-Vasquez of Long Beach kiss in the lobby of the LA County Registrar-Recorder’s office, as they wait to be married on Monday after three years. The couple will also do a church ceremony in the near future.

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Jimmy Vasquez and Rosalie Martinez-Vasquez wear their wedding bands after getting married.

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Victor Sanchez and Karina Jara wait with their family before their wedding ceremony. The couple have been together for two years.

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Jessica and Rick Garcia wait to be married on Monday afternoon. Garcia, right, is in the National Guard. The couple met as friends in high school.

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Francisca Huerta, left, kisses her grandson, 3-year-old Alexander Hernandez before marrying Leo Hernandez after 26 years of being together.

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Family members get ready for a wedding in the lobby. Dozens of couples get married in the small chapel in Norwalk at the LA County Registrar-Recorder’s office.

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Jessica Garcia straightens her soon-to-be husband's tie before their ceremony in the chapel.

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Elizabeth Oakes likes the wedding ring of a bride-to-be. Oakes got married at the LA County office herself, and is part of a cadre of volunteers who help couples get hitched.

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Oakes gives advice to the Garcia couple before their ceremony. "To love each other to honor, to cherish to be respectful," are important says Oakes, "so that you have the best shot at making this a successful and strong and long-lasting marriage."

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Volunteer Elizabeth Oakes hugs the couple after their wedding ceremony. Although Oakes performs up to 20 weddings per day, she takes time to talk to each couple.

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Elizabeth Oakes marries Louis Martin Cardo, 58, left, and Maria Elena Benson, 51, during an emotional ceremony.

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Mother Joan Hernandez and sister Elisa Monique Serna cry after Jessica Garcia's wedding ceremony.

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Louis Martin Cardo, 58, and Maria Elena Benson rub noses before kissing, to conclude their wedding ceremony.

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Rick and Jessica Garcia embrace after the two are married.

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Rick and Jessica Garcia leave the LA County Registrar-Recorder’s office as husband and wife.

This post is part of KPCC's "Season's Givings" series, chronicling volunteer experiences  and opportunities during the holiday season. View a full listing of local charites that could use your help and let us know your holiday volunteer story!

As engaged couples pack into Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder offices to tie the knot on the last triple date of the century -- 12-12-12 -- they might not realize that the officiant wearing the black robe and reciting the ceremony is a volunteer.

Volunteers perform about 85 percent of the civil wedding ceremonies done at branches of the Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder's office.

Rick Garcia is in the National Guard. Jessica Serna is his fiancee, and their son is due in March. The West Covina couple awaiting their ceremony in the Registrar's Norwalk office were happily surprised that a volunteer would oversee their vows.

"Having a volunteer is really cool. It shows she's not a selfish person," Garcia said. He's wearing a white tie and black shirt, and he's got his hair slicked into a pompadour. She's wearing a pleated peach one-shoulder dress that displays a rose tattoo on her right back shoulder blade.

Their parents and a few other relatives have accompanied them and they fit nicely inside the tiny chapel. It's a blue sponge-painted  room with just a black podium, a pink-flowered metal arch, a few wooden pews.

Inside, volunteer wedding officiant Elizabeth Oakes tells the couple they are making an important promise to each other.

"We ask you also to affirm that promise that you know," she said, reciting the words every married couple knows in the first of what could be as many as 20 weddings she'll perform on this day -- "To love each other to honor, to cherish to be respectful and all these other things so that you have the best shot at making this a successful and strong and long-lasting marriage."

Oakes' tone is informal, caring and authoritative. The mood turns serious as she talks the young couple through the meaning of each of the words in their vows: honor, cherish, respect, faithfulness.

The bride's mother wipes away tears, and her sister records the ceremony on her phone.

And then comes the big moment: "Richard and Jessica, you are now also husband and wife. It is customary to celebrate this moment with a kiss. Congratulations!"

Oakes said her volunteerism furthers the cause of love among L.A.'s diverse population.

"L.A. is home to people from everywhere in the world and they come here and we see them marrying each other. And so to me it is tremendously heartening to see that happening and it continues to inspire me to keep coming back for more," she said.

It was inspring enough that Oakes -- who has been volunteering for more than ten years -- chose this same chapel with the pink-flowered metal arch for her own wedding.

The 37 county wedding volunteers have saved county taxpayers about $200,000 said Portia Sanders, the Public Records Division manager who oversees the program.

"It's a great value because we are able to free up staff to do more administrative work." Sanders said. "This is one of the most fun parts of the job, but we give that to someone else to do and they enjoy it so much some of the volunteers say they should be paying us for the experience."

The program began in 1997 and has been widely copied across California and the nation. Sanders estimates volunteers have performed in about 200,000 weddings since then, representing more than 85 percent of the civil ceremonies in county offices.

They want more volunteers for seven chapels around the county. Weddings are held each weekday at the Norwalk office and on Thursdays and Fridays at other locations. The need for new volunteers is highest in Lancaster and at the Florence-Firestone office. They're also looking for Cantonese-speaking volunteers for the East Los Angeles office.

And for couples hoping to grab some once-in-a-century good luck, the L.A. County Registrar-Recorder's office added extra hours for marriage ceremonies today at several locations.

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