Angelenos prepare to do some good at Big Sunday Weekend

By Dana Bartholomew
Los Angeles Daily News

For David Cooper, it was never enough to bypass less fortunate Angelenos on the 101 Freeway or simply tear off a check for charity.

He wanted to get further involved in his city, connect with those around him, so this weekend, he and wife Minta Mullins and their two young sons are stepping up to accompany a bus full of homeless parents and kids to a local museum during Big Sunday Weekend, the largest community-service festival in the nation.

“It’s amazing,” said Cooper, 39, an actor and real-estate manager in Encino who has participated in the volunteer effort for several years. “It’s people helping their neighbors, coming together to help each other out.”

Sixteen years ago, a few hundred good souls fanned out across Los Angeles to give their time and talents where they were needed. Today, what’s known as Big Sunday Weekend is expected to draw some 40,000 helpers in 125 cities in seven states from California to New York.

In the volunteer epicenter of Los Angeles, thousands will complete more than 200 projects during the event, whose motto is “Pitch in! Help out! Give back!”

Across the San Fernando Valley, an army of helpers will tutor kids, plant gardens, harvest fruits, collect food, wash cars, tidy schools, spruce up parks, assemble care packages for U.S. troops and more — and all projects are free to the participants. The website lets those interested search by proximity to their home or by type of activity, each numbered for easy reference.

In years past, Cooper has done everything from building a closet at a home for former prostitutes to organizing green events. This year, it’s climbing aboard a bus supplied by Mayor Eric Garcetti to ferry dozens of curious, eager families from Los Angeles Family Housing in North Hollywood to the Kidspace Children’s Museum in Pasadena for some educational fun.

“We have a picnic planned. I think it’ll be great,” Cooper said. “Our rug rats will play with their rug rats.

“The best thing about volunteering, for me … is you can get out there and actually do something. You can spend your time, instead of your money, and have a really big impact.”

The Los Angeles-based nonprofit was founded in 1999 by “reluctant volunteer” David Levinson. A Hollywood playwright and screenwriter from Boston, he was in a deep funk nearly two decades ago, angry and depressed about rejected scripts and movies that were sold but never produced — and he began volunteering at his local synagogue.

Jokingly, he recalled thinking he could become either an alcoholic or a humanitarian. “I’m a lousy drinker,” he said. “So I became a humanitarian.”

He organized a Mitzvah Day to help spread the love, and Big Sunday — now a $1.1 million year-round charity headquartered on Melrose Avenue — was born.

The mission of the nondenominational and apolitical group is to build community through community service. Levinson, currently the organization’s executive director, even went on to author “Everyone Helps, Everyone Wins: How Absolutely Anyone Can Pitch In, Help Out and Give Back to Make the World a Better Place.”

“There are a lot of people out there who feel like they don’t have the inclination or the talent or the money to have the time to help somebody else,” said Levinson, 54, a father of three who lives in Hancock Park.

“But in fact, everybody does. Everybody’s busy these days, but there’s always some way people can help.”

This weekend, that includes boarding a “Chill Out Express” bus at Big Sunday headquarters for a Los Angeles joyride with like-minded Angelenos. Price of admission: a pair of socks or underwear for the needy.

And Levinson’s do-good movement is poised to go global. This year’s grass-roots volunteers will be observed by a team from Ade­laide, Australia, who this fall hope to duplicate the Big Sunday Weekend Down Under.

“We don’t see people as haves and have-nots,” said Levinson. “We see them as haves and have-mores.”

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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