It Was Hardly A Day Of Rest Around Southland

Los Angeles Times
April 30, 2007

It Was Hardly A Day Of Rest Around Southland
While volunteers donate their time for Big Sunday, others flock to an array of events

By Susannah Rosenblatt and David Haldane

Sunday was big in Los Angeles — really, really big.

More than 50,000 people across the city turned out to perform acts of community service for the eighth annual Big Sunday event, the largest ever.

While thousands donated their time, a quarter-million other people flocked to cultural, sports and music happenings across the Southland.

About 50,000 literary types congregated at UCLA’s annual Festival of Books. Downtown, twice that number partied at Fiesta Broadway, and 19,000 Lakers fans converged on Staples Center. Thirty-five thousand people gathered in a San Fernando Valley Park to celebrate Israel’s independence.

At the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, 60,000 music fans crowded together at the annual indie rock event to sweat and sway in the desert sun.

But for Big Sunday, this was a big year.

The gigantic volunteer effort reached most corners of the city, with helpers performing make-overs on homeless women downtown, bowling with developmentally disabled adults in Santa Monica, bathing rescued beagles in El Monte and serving brunch to AIDS patients in Silver Lake.

Volunteers coordinated more than 300 projects planting, painting, cooking and cleaning for those in need, and for the first time Big Sunday stretched into two days of good deeds.

David Levinson, a Hollywood writer who started Big Sunday in 1999 as a “mitzvah day” for Temple Israel of Hollywood, said he never dreamed it would get this big. “Not in 10 zillion years,” he said. “The phone’s been ringing off the hook. It’s empowering and exciting; we have homeless people helping and movie stars helping.”

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa now lends his name and support to the corporate-sponsored event, which expanded to the Inland Empire this year.

“It started out as community service; now it’s morphed into community building, and it just keeps growing and growing,” Levinson said.

At Precious Blood Catholic School west of downtown, Villaraigosa patted down newly planted ivy that will one day cling to the surrounding fence and provide shade and added security for the school’s ethnically diverse student body.

“I couldn’t be more excited, happier or prouder of the city of Los Angeles than I am right now,” the mayor told dozens of elementary-age children taking pictures and asking for autographs. “No city in America has ever brought this many people together in this many neighborhoods. It’s a proud moment for every Angeleno, a real example of the angels of this city.”

On the school’s playground, more than 200 parents and teachers planted vines and flowers before enjoying hot dogs and dancing on the asphalt to a DJ spinning sounds.

“I have lots of sweat, and I feel really good,” said Wonook Son, 38, the owner of a Korean restaurant whose 7-year-old daughter attends the school. “This is a community; it’s very important to work here together.”

Dorene Calderone, vice principal and a fifth-grade teacher at the school, agreed: “It’s a chance to show that we can work together and that everyone is an important part of the whole.”

First-time Big Sunday participant Melissa Toy Ozeas thought she’d offer to set up a lemonade stand for her second-grade daughter’s Brownie troop to run. Instead, at Levinson’s urging, she ended up commandeering some 400 volunteers to pour 2,000 liters of lemonade at more than 50 stands in Pasadena, Compton, East Los Angeles and across the city.

“I didn’t quite know what I was getting into,” Ozeas said as she manned a sunflower-decorated stand at an arts festival at Barnsdall Art Park in Hollywood. Nearby, children cut out tissue-paper flowers and colored paper kites.

She had helped her daughter, Samantha, 8, operate lemonade stands in their La Crescenta neighborhood since she was 4, donating her earnings to charity.

“I had this idea, what if I could multiply what my kids were doing? What if we had a stand in every neighborhood?” Ozeas said. The mother of two, a television camera assistant, coordinated an army of lemonade sellers over four months and eventually cleaned out the lemonade inventory of her local Ralphs and Vons.

Places selling the beverage included a martial arts school in Hollywood with firefighter customers, a middle school in East Los Angeles that was standing room only and a home in Hancock Park.

That kind of variety “definitely makes the city feel like more of a community,” said Ozeas’ husband, Chuck, whose jobs included lugging coolers of ice and photographing the kids.

Business at a stand in a leafy Montrose neighborhood was hopping, staffed by kindergartners shouting, “Lemonade! It’s for a good cause!” Boys and girls waved homemade signs at drivers while mothers poured pink lemonade into Styrofoam cups. In Southern California style, the kids even offered curbside service.

“There are so many children that need help these days. If we don’t do it, who else is going to do it?” said Edward Bash, whose 5- year-old twins, Bayla and Edan, hollered to drum up customers.

At 25 cents a cup, Ozeas estimates the lemonade stands raised about $3,000 over the weekend event.

All of the proceeds will go to children’s charities, including a group that builds playgrounds accessible to children with disabilities and an art therapy program for youngsters who’ve experienced domestic violence.

“I love the idea that kids are helping other kids,” Ozeas said.

Meanwhile, at Friendship Field near Griffith Park, about 1,000 children between 9 and 14 — arriving in a steady stream of yellow buses from as far away as Pomona and Santa Ana — learned about community while kicking soccer balls.

“We want them to see that the community is interested in them and that there’s a better way than gangs and graffiti,” said Manny Fineberg, the event’s “captain” who said the idea of an all-day soccer clinic for children from disadvantaged neighborhoods grew out of his own decades as a player and coach.

Each child played for an hour with help from professional coaches and left with a T-shirt, snacks and tickets to a future game.

“It’s been gratifying beyond words,” Fineberg said.

Maria Torres of Glendale was glad her 14-year-old son, Eddie, picked up a little something too: “He learned that sports is more important than being in the streets.”

In West Adams, dozens of sweaty volunteers wielded trowels and brooms as they swept floors and planted hedges and cactus in the newly landscaped courtyard of the Sunshine Mission women’s shelter.

“It was just like a wild jungle out there,” said the mission’s executive director, Marilyn Ross. The renovation “creates a place where we can enjoy the entire compound…. When you’re going through crisis, to have a beautiful place while you’re stabilizing” is critical, Ross said.

As a shoveler dug into dirt nearby, mission resident Sammie Ruth Miller, 52, recently homeless, sat watching the garden transform around her.

“I think it’s just wonderful,” she said.

(Copyright © 2007 Los Angeles Times)

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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