Payback Time

On Sunday, May 3, I will be at the city animal shelter in South Los Angeles, creating gripping mini-biographies about the dogs, cats and whatever other strays are residing there that day. The idea is to write those stories on cards, affix them to the cages, and make those wannabe pets attractive to wannabe owners. Want to join me?

Last year, around this same date, I was serving pizza, salad and dessert to runaway teens now living in a shelter in Hollywood. They were visiting a prop shop filled with cool stuff easily recognizable from their favorite TV shows. The year before that, I cleaned out the closets and organized donated goods at a drop-in center for Santa Monica’s homeless located right off the pier.

Over the past dozen or so years, I’ve planted public-school gardens and painted murals, decorated cookies for sick kids, each spring taking at least one day to move outside my comfort zone to go to places I’ve never been and meet people I might not otherwise have the chance to get to know.

One year, a good friend hooked me into helping him organize a carnival for 600 people at an elementary school in South Los Angeles; we brought in a disc jockey, clowns, face-painters, portrait photographers and much more. That day we also hosted a clothing giveaway, planted gardens and helped put in new fencing to give the kids’ lunch area more privacy. We worked alongside the neighborhood community, and when the day was over, what had been a littered and drab schoolyard had become tidy, colorful and utterly transformed.

I was transformed, too.

This all happened through Big Sunday, the nonprofit organization that is a big umbrella for volunteerism and, according to its Web site, “the largest regional community service event in America.” That Web site is also the place where you can sign up to “serve” next weekend, May 2-3, in ways that might sound way too interesting, enjoyable, or sometimes even goofy, to be considered dutiful: Helping your kids set up a lemonade stand to raise money for kids’ charities, anyone? Washing pigs (really!) or knitting clothes for preemies? You can also sort donated clothing, fix up apartments for the formerly homeless and cook for the ailing or elderly.

In this new Era of Obama, this kind of service has become cool, if it wasn’t already. Sharing, repairing, giving back, tikkun olam, whatever you want to call it. And if that all sounds a bit like taking medicine, there’s another message here: With Big Sunday projects, it’s often not the service to others that makes participating so rewarding. It’s the chance to get out of your shell and become more comfortable in your own town. To get off the freeway and into neighborhoods. To shake hands with people who don’t live right across the street. Or maybe ones who do that you’d never met before. And in the process, you do get to share a sense of accomplishment, and maybe even break bread together.

This year Big Sunday (it’s actually Big Saturday-Sunday or maybe just Big Weekend, but never mind) is expected to attract as many as 50,000 volunteers of all ages, ethnicities and backgrounds. Between 400 and 500 projects are planned (the number is still growing) to help some 250 organizations from San Diego (cleaning parks) to Solvang (home of those dirty pigs). And just reading about them on the Big Sunday Web site will make you laugh, cry, and hopefully jump in. To be honest, it sometimes seems hard to escape the day’s presence, even if you don’t participate. On a Big Sunday day, all over Los Angeles, people are working together wearing the signature T-shirts with a big colorful handprint logo. Open your eyes; you’ll see them everywhere. And for those of you going to the Yom HaAtzmaut Israel Festival the same Sunday this year, you too can join in — it’s one of the volunteer venues.

David Levinson is the face behind Big Sunday; he founded it as Temple Israel of Hollywood’s Mitzvah Day in 1999 with 13 projects, and he has overseen the event’s explosion into an independent, year-round nonprofit operation, for which he serves as executive director, aided by Sherry Marks, associate director, and a small staff. Last Sunday, Levinson was sitting in his office on Beverly Boulevard near La Brea, in a moment of calm as volunteers dropped by to pick up posters, flyers and other promotional materials.

It’s been a little rougher than usual this year, he said, because while there’s a great need for help in many communities, and a huge number of willing volunteers — from churches, mosques, synagogues, community groups, you name it — fundraising has become harder, too. Corporate donors that once gave tens of thousands now give a few thousand. That can hurt with an annual budget of $1 million (they’d hoped to reach $1.2 million this year, but had to lower their goal). So individual donations are welcome, too. What does the money go to? Well, while I was there, a great discussion was going on about moving donated furniture. No storage space was available, so alternate arrangements had to be made involving transfers from trucks to trucks. Each project costs money — all provided by Big Sunday’s budget — to provide materials, serve food, pay those vendors who can’t afford to donate, and all that has had to be handled more creatively than ever this year.

There’s also a great need for donations of food and clothing this year, perhaps more than any other year.

Still, even under pressure, Levinson has the laid-back air of someone who has seen it all, yet who knows how to kick the adrenaline into gear when needed. He’s the kind of guy who always remembers everyone’s name and is ever ready with an introduction. And even as the scope of the organization grows, he seems always tuned into the details on any project — and he’s always got a plan for how to make it better.

Over the years, Levinson has developed a remarkably convincing philosophy about volunteerism — that it’s not about doing good for others, but working with others to make things better. He’s got the spiel down, with catchwords like “our mission is not just community service but community building,” and the fact is he lives that mission. Sit around his office for a while, and you’re as likely to meet an imam as a rabbi, a mom or a teen, and everyone gets the same treatment. It’s infectious, and inspiring. It also means you end up finding yourself volunteering for one more duty.

Levinson, a playwright and screenwriter as well, has just sold a yet-to-be-named book on volunteering, from which he happily shared one secret with me: “Most people,” he said with a wry grin, “are willing and happy to do more than they bargained for.”

And he’s not afraid to ask.

So … about that animal shelter … there are some pups who would be very happy to see you…. What are you doing on May 2 and 3?

To sign up or for more information about Big Sunday, call (323) 549-9944 or visit this story at