The Rewards of Big Sunday

Los Angeles Times
May 2, 2008

The Rewards of Big Sunday

It may not have the production value of ‘Extreme Makeover,’ but the hard work of helping people has its rewards.

By David T. Levinson

Bill Clinton wrote a whole book about it. Oprah Winfrey turned it into an eight-week prime-time TV competition. And even President Bush is in on the act, declaring this National Volunteer Week.

Volunteerism — giving and helping and donating time and energy — is all the rage. And that’s a wonderful thing.

I think.

I run a large annual event called Big Sunday, and over the years have worked with thousands of volunteers. Last year, for instance, about 50,000 of them pitched in, helping in all kinds of amazing ways. Certainly my organization has benefited from all this new volunteer chic.

That said, things can get sticky when volunteering becomes the “in” thing to do — like going to Kauai. Suddenly it’s an experience to be marked with photos of houses built or tallies of meals served, and rewarded with a satisfying emotional payoff.

“I want,” one prospective volunteer told me, “to go to a poor person’s house and help at an extreme makeover.” Well, so would I. But “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” is a TV show that involves months of preparation and many thousands of dollars, not to mention soaring music, clever editing and close-ups of crying beneficiaries. I can do makeovers, some more extreme than others. And I can always argue why they’re worth doing. But I can’t guarantee the Kodak moment.

The homeless man muttered at his cheeseburger. “What is he trying to tell us?” another volunteer asked hopefully, looking for some deeper truth. But we were in a shelter, not a Robin Williams movie, and the man was only, I think, telling us that he was schizophrenic. It doesn’t mean the burger — or the man — wasn’t worth serving.

A few years back, a volunteer screamed at me because she couldn’t find a nearby parking space. “I’m sorry,” I said, “but the turnout has been much larger than we expected. Would you mind parking a few blocks away?” Yes, actually, she would. “It’s wonderful,” I continued, still trying, “because now we can help so many more kids!” “This is terrible!” she responded, furious, as if she’d pulled up at Mozza and there was no valet. “And I drove all the way from the Valley!”

About this time last year, I got a call from a caseworker at a home for people with AIDS. He’d just heard of Big Sunday and was hoping that, at this crazed eleventh hour, we could muster some people to come by, visit the residents, maybe serve brunch.

So I called some friends — a middle-aged Jewish guy from Hancock Park, an African American schoolteacher, strangers to each other — and asked if they’d help. Sure, they said. Then two women from a church across town e-mailed, apologetic for being so last minute, and they kindly agreed to go too. Great. They divvied up the food buying. Wonderful. This project was so easy.

Until the home’s address didn’t appear on MapQuest. The ragtag quartet eventually found it, but the weekend staffers answering the door knew nothing about any brunch and were suspicious of these so-called volunteers loaded down with eggs and pastry. They talked their way in — only to find indifferent residents. Ever hopeful, they kept calling me to get advice, offer updates or commiserate; my heart sank every time my phone rang. This was not going the way it was supposed to.

But these intrepid volunteers somehow coaxed one resident out of her room. And did, indeed, serve her brunch. I know this because the next day, my schoolteacher friend forwarded me an e-mail from her that said: “I just wanted to tell you how much I appreciated you and your friends’ hospitality. I haven’t had that much fun and laughter in a long time. And please let me know if you ever need my help.”

In a big weekend of big numbers and big events, this was the smallest of moments. There are no statistics to mark it. No before-and-after pictures.

Yet it reminded me why I do this. Of course, volunteering is wonderful. And sure, volunteers deserve to get their own special week. But in the end, the reason I love working with volunteers — and continue to year after year — is finding those people who are looking only for what they can give.

David T. Levinson is the founder and executive director of Big Sunday, which is this weekend.

(Copyright © 2008 Los Angeles Times)

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- -A.Z., Los Angeles