Ben Morris beamed with pride as he stood back and watched his fellow volunteers paint a mural for the Los Angeles Ministry Project’s playground in South Los Angeles during Big Sunday, a weekend-long Southland charity event that took place May 1-2.
“Sometimes when you look at a big project, it can feel overwhelming,” said Morris, an IT technician and Leo Baeck Temple congregant, who volunteered with Big Sunday for the first time this year. “What you do is you find a little piece — a little part of the wall, so to speak — and you start working on that little piece of the wall. Over time, all of you working together on those little pieces end up creating something that is really powerful.”
Big Sunday started in 1999 as a Jewish event — a mitzvah day organized by Temple Israel of Hollywood with about 200 volunteers who worked on landscaping and cleanup projects. L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa declared Big Sunday an official city event in 2006, and this year the celebration of life and generosity broke past city boundaries, drawing together more than 50,000 volunteers from different walks of life to more than 500 projects between San Diego and Santa Barbara, said David Levinson, the founder of Big Sunday.
“We’ve been working with other synagogues, with churches, with mosques, with schools, with businesses, with clubs. We have no religious or political agenda at all,” said Levinson, who throughout the weekend hustled between Big Sunday’s new headquarters on Melrose Avenue and project sites. “The agenda is to concentrate on what unites us, rather than what divides us. Every single person has some way that they can help somebody else.”
In a warehouse near Echo Park, the Derby Dolls, an all-female roller derby league, showed girls from Children of the Night, an organization that rescues kids from prostitution, that it is OK to fall as long as you get back on your feet.
“It’s something that they don’t think they can do,” said Rebecca “Demolicious” Ninburg, a co-founder of the league.
Ninburg watched as Derby Dolls skaters guided the Children of the Night girls around the pink-painted flat track of the Doll Factory, where the Dolls practice and compete.
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For many of the girls from Children of the Night, it was their first time on skates.
“These girls have never had a childhood,” said Lois Lee, Children of the Night’s founder and president.
Skating with the Derby Dolls “shows me that I can be a kid again,” said Jessica, a 15-year-old former prostitute who asked to have her name changed to protect her identity.
At 24th Street Elementary School, near the historic West Adams neighborhood, more than 400 volunteers — including Progressive Jewish Alliance staff and members — worked with the Garden School Foundation on a one-acre garden located on the school’s grounds, where lettuce, greens, flowers and herbs are grown and sold by the students in a weekly farmers’ market.
Karen Glasser, who heard about the event through a friend, worked the fertilizer into one of the garden’s beds.
“This makes you feel like you really accomplished something,” said Glasser, a Hollywood producer.
On Saturday, 50 volunteers donated their time to Blazer Youth Services Community Club, a neighborhood center in South Los Angeles that offers free literacy and cooking classes, an entrepreneurial club and theater opportunities for kids.
Using building materials donated by Big Sunday, volunteers renovated the Blazers facilities by painting its interior, planting a vegetable garden, constructing a stage for the center’s theater group and setting up a canopy for exercise classes.
“It’s a blessing,” Blazers founder Bennie Davenport said as he watched volunteers working.
Nikki Cotton, Big Sunday team captain at the Blazers project, said volunteer efforts like this have a lasting impact.
“The more these kids see that there are people willing to help them, it changes their mindset,” Cotton said.
Inside the youth center, standing on a ladder and installing new lighting, volunteer K.C. Maddox said Big Sunday made him reflect on how lucky he is in his own life.
“I’m not rich, but I’m fortunate to be healthy,” said Maddox, 46. “My son’s healthy. My wife’s healthy. I’m healthy. I know there are some kids that don’t have somebody who’s involved in their own lives.”
The next day, Blazers team captain Cotton turned up at 24th Street Elementary to deliver extra herbs and vegetables for the school’s garden. After two full days of volunteering, she was clearly tired.
“I’m exhausted,” Cotton said, “but it’s so worth it.”