Months ago, David Levinson, the founder and chairman of Big Sunday predicted that the citywide day of volunteerism might grow from 8,000 participants to 25,000 — now that the City of Los Angeles has joined the effort.
He was so, so wrong.
At the final gathering of the day, at the Los Angeles Zoo, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa announced that his office estimated 38,000 had participated. Nearly five times more people cleaned, swept, painted, cooked and helped in myriad other ways.
“This is a great partnership because we really complement each other,” Levinson says, speaking of the Big Sunday-city connection. “A funky, spunky grass-roots organization that’s been working on this for years joining with the city government. I like the fact that it’s not a response to a disaster. For some people it’s one day of volunteering. For others, it starts a long-term relationship.”
Here are some scenes from this reporter’s day on the frontlines:
8 a.m.: Hollenbeck Park, East Los Angeles
For Levinson, the mayor and thousands of others, the day kicks off with a rally. Villaraigosa, accompanied by DJ El Cucuy (Renan Almendarez Coella) of 97.9 FM La Raza welcomes a throng of volunteers.
Across the Southland, volunteers already are working in about 40 sites, says Sherry Marks, Big Sunday vice-chair and volunteer co-coordinator.
8:45 a.m.: Drive Time
After the rally, I follow Levinson back to Temple Israel, which started Big Sunday and remains the flagship location. Distracted by a phone call from a wandering group that has lost its way en route to a Heal the Bay Program, Levinson initially misses our exit.
9:30 a.m.: Temple Israel, Hollywood
Here, where it all began as Mitzvah Day with 300 volunteers in 1999, 15 projects are well under way.
9:45 a.m.: The Lobby
Racelle Shaeffer, project captain of Book’em stands surrounded by piles of books, half-filled cardboard boxes, and sorters and packers of all ages.
“We have about 10,000 books, new ones donated by publishers and others from book drives at schools, she says. “Later today they’ll be delivered to school libraries. People say that Los Angeles is a city where everyone is thinking about what they can get, but today is evidence that we also think about what we can give.”
10 a.m.: Miller Hall
The synagogue’s auditorium is overflowing with crates, diaper bags, beach bags and piles of purchases made by Gary Gilbert and his wife Judy Kirschner Gilbert, who bought 25,000 items to create 2,500 gift bags for distribution to 40 agencies. Adding to the tumult are the camera crews following the mayor throughout the day. This is his first stop after the Park.
Every inch of the synagogue seems filled with volunteers.
10:15 a.m.: The Boardroom
A dozen women are knitting tiny caps for premature babies around the heavy wooden table. The center is piled high with pastel caps and sweaters.
10:27 a.m.: The Parking Garage
The northeast section is devoted to Krispy Kreme donuts, bagels and cream cheese, not to mention coffee, orange juice, cookies, cupcakes, chips, salsa, vegetables and dip. The stock must be regularly replenished. Apparently, this sort of labor works up an appetite.
10:42 a.m.: Day School Playground
Naomi Hasak, the clothing-drive captain, directs her troops in sorting and packing boxes. A group of committed darners and sewers repairs old jeans, which will be redistributed — distressed and fashionable.
10:56 a.m.: Preschool Play Yard
Tables are covered with cookies, icing and all sorts of decorations, for the ever-popular cookie decorating project, while other volunteers make cards for the gift packets and tissue paper flower displays to be distributed to nursing homes, hospitals, home shut-ins and senior centers.
11:10 a.m.: Entrance to Parking Garage
Andy Romanov, seated at a map-covered table looks like he’s running the show, but he says he’s merely a deputy for Stephen Connors, the coordinator of 10 moving trucks and a fleet of private vehicles.
“We’ll be delivering food, gift, bags, furniture and clothes,” Romanov says.
“And even skateboards,” adds Jason Blagman, 16, a “key assistant runner” in the operation.
11:38 a.m.: The Kitchen
It’s between shifts. A meat lasagna has been assembled and packed, and a new round of volunteers is being directed by Kitchen Captain Estee Aaronson to form an assembly line for a vegetarian lasagna that will be delivered to shelters. The third shift of the day will make vegetable and chicken casseroles.
11:50 a.m.: The Lobby
The floor is no longer covered with books. Shaeffer’s volunteers have packed almost all of them into boxes. Paper maché pots filled with tissue paper flowers are lined up ready for delivery, as are most of the gift bags assembled in Miller Hall.
11:56 a.m.: Drive Time
I leave for my next site, New Horizons, a Muslim school on Sawtelle Boulevard in West Los Angeles, one of four schools founded by the Islamic Center of Southern California. This cross-town excursion gives me a sense of the scope of the day’s ambition.
12:15 p.m.: Arrival at New Horizons School
The mayor and his entourage are leaving. Scores of people, parents at the school, and many volunteers are engrossed in decorating paper maché flower pots and tissue paper flowers.
12:30 p.m.: Principal’s Office
Anis Ahmed, the principal since 1996, explains that this fall her school had participated in an outreach program with students from Temple Israel. The shared activities of the fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders set the stage for their Big Sunday participation.
“The mission for our schools is to nurture a positive Muslim American identity. It is essential for us to reach out to other communities, to establish peace and friendship, while holding on to our culture and our roots,” Ahmed says.
12:45 p.m.: Lunch and Playground
Katie Covell, 24, who teaches a community class in world religions at her Venice home, has brought five friends with her after learning about Big Sunday on MySpace: “There are so many people my age who want to get involved. I’m meeting so many great people and the food is delicious”
Long tables are covered with platters of samosas, pakoras, many variations on potato pancakes and croquettes, curries, eggplant and noodle dishes from many cultures along with a bounty of desserts.
1:10 p.m.: Flower Pot Central on the Playground
Vaughan Rachel, a member of Beth Chayim Chadishim, is on the scene with Robin Baltic, who has been co-coordinating that synagogue’s Big Sunday activities for the past four years.
“We’ve been talking to Ramiza Subhan, the principal’s mother,” Baltic says. “We’ve spent two hours talking about the similarities between Islam and Judaism. I knew very little about Islam.”
“And I had very little knowledge of Judaism,” Subhan chimes in.
They report coming up with about a dozen similarities including having only one God, observing fast days and not eating pork or shellfish.
1:35 p.m.: Drive Time
Next stop, Figueroa School in South Los Angeles.
2:10 p.m.: Figueroa School, W. 111th and S. Figueroa streets
Parents, teachers and other volunteers have been painting murals, cleaning, planting, and re-organizing storage sheds, in addition to making tissue flowers for the Watts Senior Center, and running a flea market to raise money for the literacy program at the Alma Reeves Woods Library. A jazz trio adds to the ambiance. I arrived too late for the reptile man and the marionette show, but manage to catch the 100-person drum circle run by Chris Reid from Bang a Drum on La Brea.
3:45 p.m.: W. 111th Street.
A truck pulls up with about 60 boxes. The donated books that, this morning, were stacked in the Temple Israel lobby, have reached their destination.
4 p.m.: Drive Time
The highlight is a weekend traffic jam.
5:30 p.m.: The Zoo Parking Lot, Griffith Park
I’m milling about with tired volunteers. John Rosove, Temple Israel’s rabbi, spent the morning working with Rebuilding Together in Pasadena renovating a home for women recovering from addiction.
“What is exciting about Big Sunday, he says, “is it provides real role modeling. Parents bring their children. It’s a statement of what a community can do.”
6 p.m.: Stage in Zoo Parking Lot
In his closing remarks, Villaraigosa, who spent the day visiting projects through the city, refers to the Jewish principles of tikkun olam and mitzvot, adding that Christians have a deep belief in social justice that mirrors these ideas. Today, he says, bringing David Levinson to the stage, “Jews, Christians and Muslims; blacks and whites; Latinos and Asians are coming together.
“What I always say about Big Sunday,” Levinson adds, “is that everybody has some way they can help somebody else.”