Big Sunday Weekend goes beyond community service

Phil Rosenthal, creator and executive producer of the sitcom “Everybody Loves Raymond,” was leading a game of Bingo in the annex dining room at Canter’s Deli on the morning of May 5 — not a bad way to spend Big Sunday Weekend, the annual festival of community service that featured more than 150 projects this year.

In this case, the players consisted of about 60 mostly middle-aged and elderly ladies, along with a few older men. Some were residents of the Downtown Women’s Shelter, a permanent housing solution for the low-income and homeless of downtown’s Skid Row; others were members of the Hollywood retirement community Bethany Towers. Volunteers of all ages, some of them from local synagogues, were among the players as well.

As Rosenthal called out letters and digits, the players focused intently on the Bingo cards placed in front of each of them, marking numbers. Plates of Danish pastries and cups of coffee sat in front of them at the ready. At stake were jumbo chocolate bars, Burt’s Bees beauty products and, of course, “Everybody Loves Raymond” DVDs.

Before long, a woman in a pink T-shirt, a resident of the women’s shelter, yelled out those magical words: “Bingo!” 

The real magic, though, was the community-building happening at Canter’s, the bridging of the gap between folks who would not normally spend time together, as opposed to traditional community service projects that emphasize who are the haves and who are the have-nots. 

“Everybody wants to help, that’s what social connectedness is,” said David Levinson, founder of Big Sunday Weekend, which ran May 3-5 this year. Levinson also is the executive director of the nonprofit organization Big Sunday, which puts on Big Sunday Weekend as well as smaller-scale opportunities for giving back all year-round.

This year marked the 15th iteration of Big Sunday Weekend, with thousands of volunteers fanning out across the city, state and country. This was the first year that the initiative expanded outside of California, with events taking place in Florida, North Carolina, Nevada, Denver, Oklahoma and Georgia.

What was conceived in the ’90s as a mitzvah day involving only one synagogue, Temple Israel of Hollywood, now has grown into something of enormous proportions that includes community-wide efforts to paint schools, plant gardens, clean beaches and hiking trails, distribute clothes and books, beautify mental health facilities and animal rescue sites, feed the homeless and more. All events are non-religious and apolitical.

The weekend — it takes place over the course of three days and has the support of the Los Angeles’ mayor’s office — has grown to include all religions, ethnicities and ages. Moreover, a large number of volunteers are made up of corporations that send contingents of employees to pitch in at certain projects. Some even hold their own projects. TriNet, a national corporation that provides human resource consulting services to small to midsize businesses, sent more than 200 of its employees to volunteer.

Some events consisted of traditional community service projects: On Sunday, more than 150 volunteers gathered at The Jewish Federation of Greater Long Beach and West Orange County to make 1,000 sandwiches for Long Beach’s homeless community. Similarly, 500 volunteers turned out to the Islamic Institute of Orange County to conduct bake sales, clothing drives and food drives.

“I want to give back to the community in Los Angeles,” said Big Sunday volunteer Joel Miller, a 55-year-old founder of a literary talent agency from Mid-City. “I think it’s important for those of us in a position to help others to be a part of these opportunities.”

Other projects — such as the “Everybody Eats, Everybody Wins” events at Canter’s, Ocean Seafood Restaurant in Chinatown and Guelaguetza Restaurant on Olympic Boulevard — demonstrate a model of “community-building,” important to Levinson. Ditto for the Big Sunday “Adventures,” which brought communities together for activities such as horseback riding, a boat ride and trips to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. At each of these projects, volunteers took up half of the spots and the other half were reserved for homeless people, low-income seniors, battered women and others.

People coming together from different socioeconomic backgrounds to nosh, hang out and play games is, perhaps, Levinson’s idea of the perfect Big Sunday.

“These are my favorite events,” he said, watching the Bingo game at Canter’s. “Just bringing people out and showing them a good time.”