Big Sunday Gets LA Volunteering In A Big Way

The Tidings
April 18, 2008

Big Sunday Gets LA Volunteering In A Big Way

By Ellie Hidalgo

Big Sunday has come to mean Big Synergy. The largest citywide community service weekend in the country, Big Sunday is building meaningful community interactions across traditional ethnic, religious and social barriers.

Originally the idea started out as Mitzvah Day at Temple Israel in Hollywood — a day to engage in good deeds for others. From several hundred volunteers working on 19 projects, the effort now entails more than 50,000 people volunteering for 309 projects throughout Southern California.

“We’ve gone from community service to community building,” said David Levinson, director, who has maintained his relaxed demeanor and no limits spirit despite the project’s unprecedented growth. “Big Sunday expands to fill people’s talents. We have projects for whatever people’s passions are.”

This year’s May 3-4 Big Sunday weekend — the 10th annual event — offers projects like planting a garden at a school, feeding the hungry at a local food bank, and visiting the elderly at a retirement home.

“We have volunteers who are homeless people, and we have volunteers who are movie stars,” said Levinson, a writer for television, film, theater and advertising. His wife and three children also join in the effort. “Everyone helps, especially spouses,” he quipped.

Covenant House in Hollywood has been involved since the beginning and played a role in Levinson’s decision to broaden the concept so that everyone is invited to contribute — young and old, poor and wealthy.

Religious Sister of Charity Margaret Farrell of Covenant House said that while the needs of its homeless youth are many, she sees Big Sunday as an opportunity for the teens and young adults to give back.

“Even though they are in a bad situation, they can still help other people,” said Sister Farrell. “It makes them feel good about themselves and moves them from the helpless feeling they’re in to empowerment.”

For years, the youth ran a car wash on Big Sunday to raise money for Students Run L.A. to train at-risk youth to run in the Los Angeles Marathon. Temple Israel matched what the youth made to give to a Covenant House project in Tijuana. It’s an example of Levinson’s synergy in action that makes Big Sunday a particularly creative force in Los Angeles.

This year, Sister Farrell said Covenant House youth will run a flea market at nearby Callanan Mortuary at Western and Sunset on May 4 in order to raise funds to build an orphanage in Tijuana.

“The youth realize there are people worse off. They see what $100 can do for people and it really makes them feel good,” said Sister Farrell.

Nancy Coonis, archdiocesan superintendent of Catholic high schools, has been a big advocate of Big Sunday.

“I like for high school students to get the sense of being part of a large civic community that is Los Angeles and that’s very diverse,” she told The Tidings.

Robert Warren, director of community service at Bishop Alemany High School in Mission Hills, said about 80-120 students have participated in Big Sunday activities the last four years. Students have visited local elementary schools to paint, clean up, work on murals or run a school carnival for kids. They’ve also planted trees, worked on Habitat for Humanity projects, washed dogs being put up for adoption and helped to feed clients attending a Jewish-run food bank.

The Big Sunday staff, said Warren, “make sure projects are fun for everyone, well organized, and that everyone has a meaningful experience.”

Big Sunday supplies snacks and free t-shirts at every project site.

The annual Big Sunday weekend has been a springboard for ongoing service or the creation of another project to meet a specific need. Several Alemany students now volunteer with Habitat once a month. And the students who cleaned up the elementary school realized the school’s library was sparse. The teens returned to Alemany, organized a “gently used book” drive and delivered plenty more books to the school.

“We’re really indebted to the Catholic community for helping us to grow,” said Levinson.

Big Sunday is organized so that even the littlest volunteers are welcomed and their contributions are appreciated. Young ones will work at some 100 lemonade stands throughout the city to raise money for charity.

Dottie Bessares, principal at Precious Blood School in Los Angeles and an eighth grade teacher before that, jumped into the original Mitzvah Day and saw the immediate Jewish-Catholic connection between good deeds and loving one’s neighbors.

“Jesus tells us we are our brother’s keeper. We can’t all do everything, but each of us can do a little something,” Bessares told The Tidings. “When I met David, I just knew he was a role model for the rest of us, and I had to get us involved.”

One year every Precious Blood class assembled boxes of toiletries to donate. School families are encouraged to participate as a family, whether to plant a garden at a hospice care center, wash cars or sort through donated baby items to give to young unwed mothers.

Last year, Big Sunday decided to help the urban school create a safer environment for children by planting vines running through the chain link fence. The vines are creating a natural barrier between children and passersby walking on the busy street.

A skilled volunteer put in a donated irrigation system, and a donor contributed quality vines. Others dug holes and planted. A radio station played live music, and even Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa stopped by and grabbed a shovel to pitch in.

“Once you get involved with Big Sunday,” said Bessares, “you network with so many wonderful people from different schools, churches, synagogues, organizations, and the city.”

(Copyright © 2008 The Tidings Corporation)

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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