Big Sunday Events Around L.A. Have Volunteers Opening Hearts

Daily News
May 2, 2008

Big Sunday Events Around L.A. Have Volunteers Opening Hearts

By Susan Abram

A Hollywood flea market, organized by former teenage runways, will raise money for hungry orphans in Tijuana.

A San Fernando Valley cottage that houses formerly homeless women and children will get a new roof and carpeting.

Troops in Afghanistan and Iraq will receive donated socks, bandannas, cookies and compact discs.

Those are among a few of the efforts that will be under way across the Southland this weekend as thousands of volunteers come together to participate in Big Sunday, billed as the largest annual service event in the nation.

What began with 300 volunteers a decade ago at Temple Israel in Hollywood has evolved into a massive, two-day community effort with 300 projects — 80 in the San Fernando Valley — and up to 50,000 volunteers participating in good deeds from planting trees and cleaning riverbeds to painting over graffiti and spending time with the elderly.

“Everyone helps and everyone wins,” said Big Sunday founder David Levinson. “We have volunteers from homeless people to movie stars. We value everyone equally. The idea is everybody has some way they can contribute.”

The event now is so large that the Website has received 20 million hits since April 1, when the list of volunteering opportunities first appeared. Even Disney and NBC Universal have joined in.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa also includes his annual Mayor’s Day of Service as part of Big Sunday. On Saturday, some 3,000 volunteers are expected to take part in projects in Chatsworth, Canoga Park, Winnetka and West Hills.

This year, Big Sunday also will offer specialized volunteer opportunities, including Green Sunday for projects specifically focused on the environment.

Then there’s Single Sunday for those volunteers interested in giving time, and perhaps, finding love at the same time.

Levinson said he thought of the idea after reading a column about a woman who was searching for love among the volunteers. She came away with a nice experience and good friends, but Levinson thought the idea could be expanded.

“It’s experimental for now,” he said. “We’ll see how it goes.”

Some organizations have come to rely on Big Sunday for needs that can’t quite be met solely through fundraisers.

At Covenant House, a nonprofit that helps teenage runaways in Hollywood, the community’s generosity creates a sort of reciprocity among the teens as they in turn want to give back, said Sister Margaret Farrell, the house’s spiritual ministry coordinator.

Visit inspired teens

This year, the teens will hold a flea market Sunday in Hollywood to raise money for a Tijuana orphanage. The idea came after a trip across the border, where the teens were inspired by what they saw, Farrell said.

“The young people have seen some hard times, but when they came back from Tijuana, they realized their experiences were nothing compared to the poverty they saw across the border,” she said.

“The youth that saw the orphanage were so upset with the poverty. The visit put their lives into perspective.”

Money raised from the flea market will be used to buy extra food and fund continual work at the orphanage, Farrell said.

Some who volunteer during Big Sunday bring much-needed expertise, especially in construction and carpentry, said Elaine Kanoskie, executive director for the Women’s Care Cottage, a North Hollywood-based nonprofit that assists homeless women and their children.

This year, volunteers will place a new roof on the cottage, where women and children stay until they can find their own homes.

“For us, it’s so important because this is a home for women and children to get off the streets. Once they walk in the door, they can breathe a sigh of relief,” Kanoskie said.

“It’s important for the emotional well-being for the children and mothers to feel well where they are.”

Up to 3,000 women and children are served each year by the cottage, but sometimes the funding to fix sagging roofs isn’t enough. That’s where Big Sunday becomes a big help, Kanoskie said.

“It’s just so phenomenal and so heartwarming,” she said.

In Van Nuys, volunteers will help sort thousands of donated items that will be sent to troops in Iraq and Afghanistan as part of Operation Gratitude.

“Without a question, Big Sunday has been an amazing benefit,” said Carolyn Blashek, founder of Operation Gratitude, which sends out thousands of care packages to military personnel.

“Many of the volunteers who come through Big Sunday really take a shine to us.”

A way to regain control

In a time of war, of economic downturns, high gas prices and a crumbling housing market, volunteering helps people regain some control, Blashek and others said.

And Big Sunday helps them find their niche, with some returning every year.

The event also challenges the notion that people in L.A. are self-absorbed and aloof, Levinson said.

“Whether you are homeless on Skid Row or a celebrity in Bel-Air, everyone wants to help,” he said.

“Everybody in their hearts wants to feel that they are wanted and needed.”

(Copyright © 2008 The Daily News of Los Angeles)

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[Thanksgiving Stuffing Event] “Our Thanksgiving wouldn’t be the same without you guys. It warms my heart and replenishes my faith to witness such kindness in action.”

- -A.Z., Los Angeles