Big Sunday Encourages Baby Steps To Volunteerism

A Hollywood writer was fed up with endless rounds of script revisions so he channeled his frustration into a day of volunteerism. From simple roots, his action grew into a nonprofit called Big Sunday.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

This weekend is an annual nationwide event known as Big Sunday. It's such Big Sunday it now lasts the whole weekend. It's aimed at boosting the numbers of Americans who volunteer in their communities. It began 16 years ago, started by a film writer who decided to channel his frustration over endless script edits into something more productive.

Reporter Alex Schmidt has the story.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN)

ALEX SCHMIDT, BYLINE: At Carthay Center Elementary School in Los Angeles, parent Theresa Dahl is organizing water bottles, T-shirts and energy bars to fuel volunteers on Big Sunday, with the eager assistance of a bunch of kids.

THERESA DAHL: OK, you guys. We're going to unload some stuff for Big Sunday. Can you come on Sunday and help out in the garden?

SCHMIDT: Carthay has a beautiful school science garden, which has been built in large part with the efforts of Big Sunday volunteers. Eight years ago, when Carthay first got involved with Big Sunday, Dahl had never supervised volunteers.

DAHL: Prior to that I had volunteered with other organizations and events, but never had I actually hosted my own volunteer event. They give you all the paperwork, the release forms so - what would you say - it's a cookie cutter. You know, they give you the infrastructure so that you can host a successful event the very first time out the gate.

SCHMIDT: Big Sunday was born 16 years ago, the result of a screenwriter's frustration with his career.

DAVID LEVINSON: That if I'm writing a script and going to meeting for the eighth or ninth or 10th year about the same script, well, at some point you have to ask yourself why you're doing that.

SCHMIDT: Big Sunday founder David Levinson.

LEVINSON: So I thought, alright I'll do something to help other people. 'Cause if I go to, say, a homeless person is moving into permanent housing and I can bring in some furniture and I can set up the apartment, I don't have to ask myself at the end of the day why I did that. I know why I did that.

SCHMIDT: The concept for this day of service was to be a sort of gateway for anyone who wanted to help, seamlessly matching people with opportunities to volunteer that fit with their talents. Levinson started small in his synagogue. He thinks the concept spread because communications and technology have made tough times so visible.

LEVINSON: People were able to see much more clearly the pain and suffering that some people have. And I think as we all become aware of it, there's just this natural reaction to want to help.

SCHMIDT: This year 40,000 volunteers will be helping in seven states, from California to Illinois to New York. And later this year, Big Sunday is going global, with its first event in Australia. In keeping with the spirit of the day, many volunteers this weekend will be first timers, like Julie Avey.

JULIE AVEY: For me, I'm really big on community. And I say that I'm involved in my community but I realized that - what have I done for my community lately?

SCHMIDT: Avey is a member of the California Air National Guard. She and her colleagues are going to rehab a workforce center for homeless veterans outside Los Angeles - carpeting, electrical, gardening.

AVEY: Big Sunday says that anybody and everybody can come out. I can scrape the walls. I can paint the walls. I may not be able to actually make the garden beds out of wood as a woodworker, but I can definitely do my part.

SCHMIDT: Big Sunday isn't just about volunteerism. It's about building community too. For the extremely reluctant volunteer, there's the Big Sunday Chillout Express, a bus that drives around L.A., where people of diverse backgrounds can chat. And that's pretty much the whole activity. The price of admission: donating a pair of new socks or underwear.

For NPR News, I'm Alex Schmidt in Los Angeles.

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