Volunteers get ready for Big Sunday’s crowds

Big Sunday Weekend just keeps getting bigger.

The nation’s largest regional community service event, which started in 1999 as the project of a single synagogue in Hollywood, last year boasted some 50,000 participants and next weekend, for the first time, will stretch statewide — all the way from San Diego to San Francisco and Sacramento.

This year’s smorgasbord of volunteer offerings is so large, in fact, that it now required an additional weekend just to divvy up all the materials required for the projects. That’s why the Courthouse Square at Universal Studios was such a flurry of activity on April 30 and May 1, even though Big Sunday Weekend itself isn’t until May 14 and 15. (Yes, Big Sunday became too big for a single day, expanding to a full weekend in 2007.)

“It’s pretty big,” said Ben Pratt, who coordinated preparatory activities at Universal Studios during what’s being called Distribution Weekend. “If you take into account by weight the materials that we distribute, I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s over 25 tons of materials. That includes T-shirts, it includes potting soil, it includes paint, food, cleaning supplies, etc. There’s a lot of stuff going out in the community.”

He watched as a line of volunteers’ cars, minivans and trucks paraded through the studio back lot picking up everything needed in order to undertake more than 500 projects, all funded by private and corporate cash grants and in-kind donations.

This year, Big Sunday’s reach extends up to the Bay Area. David Levinson, founder and executive director, said the event’s expansion has been very organic. Some businesses whose employees participated in service in the Los Angeles area, for example, wanted to get their employees in other regions involved.

What the effort’s growth represents is something much greater, though, Levinson said.

“I think what it really says is that most people are really nice and goodhearted and want to help. They just need to know where they’re wanted and where they’re needed. Wherever you go, there are people like that — whether they’re Jewish or Christian or Muslim or black or white or whatever they are — and we’re very inclusive, and I think that message has resonated with people, so that allows us to just keep growing.”

This year’s hundreds of projects, listed for signups at bigsunday.org, benefit more than 400 organizations. Volunteers will plant gardens at schools, fix up homeless shelters, spruce up dog parks, go bowling with developmentally disabled adults, throw a picnic for people living with HIV/AIDS, give blood, clean up beaches and much more. By contrast, when Levinson started Big Sunday in 1999 at Temple Israel of Hollywood, it involved about 300 people, was much more limited in scope and had a more Jewish-sounding name: Mitzvah Day.

Now volunteers from all faiths, races, ages, political persuasions and socioeconomic groups participate, and all people who benefit from projects must lend a hand as well. People come as individuals or in groups for undertakings that can last anywhere from an hour to two days. Big Sunday has become a year-round organization with other smaller endeavors, too.

Levinson, a TV, theater and movie writer who is the author of “Everyone Helps, Everyone Wins,” a book focused on volunteerism, sees even more room for growth.

“It’s great to be in the big cities, but there’s that whole Central California. There’s Northern California,” he said.

Berenice Katcher has been part of the event for six years and is now coordinator for schools projects.

“I love Big Sunday. It’s the thing I love the most in the whole world,” Katcher said. “What happens on Big Sunday is that every preconception or prenotion that anyone has of anybody else falls away. And, to me, it’s the one day in Los Angeles, in this very intense … explosive environment, that we can just work together, create, and build and form friendships that are lifelong friendships.”

The theory behind Big Sunday Weekend is that everyone can find something they can do to make a difference. That’s a lesson that, ideally, leads to more volunteering, according to Tani Isaacs. A 10-year veteran of the effort, this year she’s overseeing hubs, or locations where several projects take place under one roof.

“Big Sunday is a gateway entrance to community service for people,” the Santa Monica woman said. “It’s a very easy, accessible way for them to get involved with a very limited commitment and to see how rewarding and fulfilling it can be. My experience is that most people who get involved in something like this understand how fulfilling it is, and then they want to go on and do more.”

Even if they don’t, they can still know they’ve made a difference. Katcher pointed to the example of a group of schoolchildren who made papier-mâché flowerpots, and one 8-year-old, in particular, who made a lasting impression on the 93-year-old to whom he gave his at a senior center.

As she accepted it, the elderly woman said, “It’s been a long time since anyone gave me flowers.”

A link to how to sign up to volunteer for Big Sunday Weekend is at bigsunday.org.