I love Big Sunday Weekend (BSW). It’s like going home for me. Jennie, my deaf mother, raised eight of her 10 kids in New York tenements and then in a low-income housing project. This year, my labor was dedicated to her.
My plans were simple. Drive my wife as she accompanied David Levinson, Big Sunday’s founder, to 10 or 15 of the hundreds of projects scattered throughout Los Angeles County, meet lots of folks and work with them. I planned to photograph each event for the Big Sunday website’s daily updates. I also have become, after 12 years of participating in BSW, an experienced handyman — a great janitor, painter, gardener, digger and friend for the weekend.
Saturday morning, I arrived at the Big Sunday storefront in time to help Ruth load heavy boxes of books into her SUV for her school library building project. Meanwhile, Alice’s pickup was weighed down for her literacy project near USC. The Big Sunday office was packed with piles of clothes, food, sporting equipment, toiletries, books, a couple of bikes and dozens of other things to be given away. Levinson was there greeting volunteers from all over, who were introducing themselves to one another.
We visit A Place Called Home in South L.A., a haven for underserved youth. Volunteers from Big Sunday, A Place Called Home and ADT (the security company) are everywhere, painting floors, gardening, doing industrial cleanup. I end up washing pots in the kitchen. I meet a trumpet-playing kid who had just won a scholarship through the organization to study music. I greet Joel Lipton, a professional photographer, who frequently contributes his great talents doing portraits of Big Sunday volunteers.
At the Tom Bradley Magnet School, BSW volunteers sort through enormous piles of books and arrange them on shelves. I work with Michael, the school’s custodian, digging and shoveling mulch around plants that Alex is planting. Michael is later joined by Jesse. They build forms and I sweep. Nearby, tons of kids paint murals.
At Harbor Interfaith, a homeless residence in San Pedro, I’m glad to see Tony Molina again. Tony is captain of this project and has helmed many others over the years. I’m always surprised at how far he can stretch resources and volunteer crews. I scrape and help paint a fence with a friendly family from Palos Verdes. The mom’s amazing, expertly leading the crew through the work. Ricardo, 16, takes his BSW T-shirt off and returns to being a resident. He’s tired and leans against a wall. Until recently, he was living on the street with his mom and two younger siblings. He wants to graduate high school but knows he needs a job.
On Sunday morning, we arrive at Beverly Hills Carmel, an assisted living center. Lots of BSW volunteers are assembling from synagogues and churches, jumping in as Levinson alternates between shtick and playing the piano. I invite Albert, 95, to join us. He lost his wife last year and misses her. He’s distracted, waiting for a “bad phone call” about his terribly ill daughter in Minneapolis. He’s afraid he may lose her, too. He asks whether I’m clergy, and I ask several volunteers wearing yarmulkes whether any are rabbis. I meet Bob, 86, who lives there with his wife, Henrietta. Bob was an optometrist in Bellflower; his son is now working the practice. Levinson, at the piano, plays “Over the Rainbow.” We all sing. Two ukulele players strum “Hey Good Lookin’.” It’s a big hit. “Edelweiss” is my favorite. The kids prefer “Tomorrow,” dancing as they sing. My darling wife sings into the ear of a hard-of-hearing man named Harold.
Kelso Elementary School in Inglewood surprises me. I worked here on BSW two years ago. I meet Kara Corwin, who’s brought a huge crowd from the Center for Early Education. Together, the two communities have helped transform a once-dismal school into a bright, cheerful and welcoming place where students are happy. One continuing problem: the ugly chain-link fence surrounding the playground. Kara says TreePeople is coming to plant trees along it, and before I know it, I volunteer to provide irrigation-engineering plans and help dig. ABC 7’s Jovana Lara, who also volunteered, interviews Levinson. Several children — some from the Westside, others from Kelso — get to be on TV, too. After painting a mural in a classroom, I greet Mrs. Woods. I remember her from my last BSW visit. She began teaching here more than 20 years ago. She reminds me of a favorite teacher from decades ago in my school in the South Bronx.
At Arlington Heights Elementary in Mid-City, I find hundreds of people from both Arlington Heights and the Curtis School across town. A family of five cuts shrubs and rakes leaves in the front. There’s professional equipment. This gardener and his family live nearby; they’ve come to help on BSW. A stubborn old root system has six men taking turns with a pickaxe. I drift off to take pictures, sweep and dig in a hidden side garden. Kids plant vegetables, which they promise to water. I walk back to the yard. There is a mound of exhausted, thick roots next to a freshly planted king palm.
On Big Sunday Weekend, I drive to places I normally don’t go. I smile a lot; people see my Big Sunday T-shirt and return my smile; everyone knows who we are. Thousands of us smiling and eager to help. L.A. is measurably better and so are we, for the community we built and will continue to build throughout the year. Everyone helps, everyone wins. Especially me.
Charles Schwartz lives in Santa Monica and is a 12-year Big Sunday Weekend veteran. His wife, Rachel Schwartz, is Big Sunday’s longtime PR representative. This year’s event took place May 1-3.