Thousands of volunteers step up for Big Sunday Weekend

By Dana Bartholomew
Los Angeles Daily News
May 2, 2015

SHADOW HILLS >> Eighteen-year-old Erick Garcia, who has cerebral palsy, rode a dark bay pony around Ahead with Horses on Saturday, his tight muscles relaxing by the minute.

And working right beside him to add luster to the renowned nonprofit therapeutic riding center in Shadow Hills were dozens of volunteers for Big Sunday Weekend — the largest community-service festival in the nation.

“We really appreciate all the work Big Sunday Weekend volunteers are doing for the kids,” said Corina Garcia, Erick’s mom, of Sherman Oaks. “It makes a big difference. Without Ahead (for Horses), he would be less mobile.”

Seventeen years ago, a handful of volunteers had fanned out across Los Angeles to donate time and talent to do good. Now the 17th Big Sunday Weekend, which ends today, will likely draw 40,000 do-gooders in 80 cities in 10 states from California to New York. This year’s motto:: “Dirty Hands. Open Minds. Big Hearts.”

From San Diego to Sacramento, thousands of volunteers have exercised the give-back grease on 200 projects designed to build communities through service.

Across the San Fernando Valley, an army of good hearts has been planting trees, building butterfly gardens, catching unwanted crayfish, tidying up and painting schools, renovating foster care centers, feeding the homeless, making lunch for seniors and assembling care packages for U.S. troops and more.

Video: Michelle Newman of Ahead with Horses in Shadow Hills
heralds Big Sunday Weekend volunteers.

Those wishing to sign up for a Big Sunday Weekend event today can go to

“It’s really really nice,” said David Levinson, a Hollywood screenwriter who founded Big Sunday, the $1.3 million Los Angeles-based nonprofit that runs the Big Sunday Weekend and year-round community service bonanza now as far afield as Australia. “This is really a celebration of helping.

“The fact is, I’m a really lucky guy, because whenever someone comes through our doors, they’re looking to do something nice for people.”

When the nearly half-century-old Ahead with Horses moved to its stables a few years ago to a one-acre ranch off Sunland Boulevard, it was Big Sunday Weekend volunteers who helped clear the grounds.

On Saturday, dozens of volunteers from Los Angeles to Simi Valley descended upon the therapeutic riding center to help spruce it up for its annual Children’s Demonstration & Fun Day. The community fundraiser, with barbecue and family fun, will be held from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, June 13.

Under a blazing hot sun, they sanded and restained benches. Poured cement in paint cans to erect moveable posts. Cleaned the tack of eight horses ridden by disabled kids. And planted rows of yellow daisies, red geraniums and purple lavender amid grounds shaded by tamarisk, pine and pomegranates.

All the while, kids and young adults with cerebral palsy rode within a lesson arena guided by doting instructors.

“Who wants to work with cement? Anybody?” asked Michelle Newman, executive director of Ahead with Horses, as well as the Big Sunday Weekend team captain for the “Hoof Ahead with Horses” day.

“Big projects today, lots of volunteers,” she told a visitor. “ We are always thrilled to have Big Sunday and have lots of volunteers to help.”

Among those eager to lend a hand was 20-year-old Erica Quezada, who works at a nearby convalescent home and now studies to become a nurse. “I love horses, and I wanted to volunteer,” said Quesada, of Los Angeles, filling a paint can with dirt. “You can have fun, add to your resume, and give back.”

Among those refinishing benches assembled last year during Big Sunday Weekend was 14-year-old Claire Gerson, of Sherman Oaks, who attends Levinson’s synagogue, Temple Israel of Hollywood. And like Levinson, she wanted to share in a a Mitzvah Day to help spread the love.

“This is a mitzvah because I’m doing something for something else,” Gerson said, while sanding one of 10 wooden benches parents use to watch their disabled kids vault, or learn gymnastics, on horses.

“I’m volunteering: It’s doing something that is not going to have a better outcome for you your — but someone else will be happier for it.”

PHOTO: A small legion of volunteers helped “lend a hoof” Saturday to spritz up the grounds of Ahead with Horses, a Shadow Hills nonprofit that helps disabled and other kids through equestrian therapy. They joined thousands of volunteers this Big Sunday Weekend, the largest community based volunteer festival in the nation.
Dean Musgrove — Staff photographer

(Copyright © 2015 Los Angeles Daily News Corporation)

[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