When Johnnette Washington’s partner died, she felt lonely. So her friends encouraged her to join the Pontiac SUN TimeBank, a unique program that blends individual skills, reciprocity, and social networking for the good of the community in the city of Pontiac.
In its simplest form, time banking creates a framework for one member to share an hour of work, like gardening, cooking or computer repair. The recipient then pays forward that hour to fill another member’s need for painting, tutoring or help making jam.
In the two years since Washington joined the 263-member Pontiac TimeBank, she has invested time spinning romantic tunes at community events under the DJ moniker “Mother Love.”
But she never predicted the payback she would receive.
A daughter’s wish
One Thursday in March, Washington attended a TimeBank class on genealogy. She shared her longstanding wish to locate her father, Ennis Richie, a man she met just once, some 67 years earlier. She knew his name, but little more.
“My mother married my stepfather before I was born. I have tried so many times to find my father, and I never could,” says Washington.
“But I remember that day meeting my father when I was just two. He drove a cab and had me in the front seat… at lunch, he took me to a café, and I remember hearing his voice, saying to everyone ‘This is my baby! Come and look at her!’ That day I will never forget.”
In class sat Linda Wright, a neighbor who dabbles in tracing ancestry. Wright heard Washington’s plea and assumed the challenge of locating Ennis Richie.
“I spoke up, and then thought oh, what did I just do?” recalls Wright, recognizing the difficulty of the task.
The following Saturday, Wright called Washington to say she had located her father and wanted to deliver a copy of his death certificate.
“I was crying like crazy,” said Washington. “I’m still bubbly about it. I have seven children, and they are all excited.”
Washington learned Richie died on Nov. 14, 1956, in St. Louis. “I learned his birthday, the cemetery where he is buried, that he was in the Navy. Lots of information that we can still use.”
Wright says she is touched by her discovery’s impact. “She was very emotional. It made me feel good that she just appreciated knowing where he was. I haven’t done anything for anyone like that before,” she says.
The power of connection
It’s an extraordinary example, yet one that illustrates the potential value of a time bank. In Pontiac, where “SUN” stands for “strong united neighbors,” the TimeBank has logged 15,358 hours since forming in 2013.
“There are a variety of transactions, many around cooking and food, children and youth services, mentoring, coaching and transportation,” says director Kim Hodge.
Hodge believes Pontiac, populated with productive people, is poised to leverage the potential of time banking. Eight-hundred hours have been banked for community building, 400 for babysitting and childcare, more than 200 for errands and shopping, 188 for gardening and 123 for computer repair.
There is no cost for membership for Pontiac residents, all members receive an orientation, and background checks are provided by the local nonprofit Common Ground. Pontiac SUN TimeBank members have access to group projects, legal aid clinics, health and wellness information and monthly potlucks and community events.
Hundreds of time banks are in existence across the globe, with more than 10 in Michigan, some which incorporate several communities.
A core value of time banking is respect for individual assets. Each member’s contribution has equal value, regardless of occupation, educational level or background. “It may be a child teaching another child to read, or how to use your phone, but it’s equal to a doctor or nurse using their time,” explains Hodge.
As a form of alternative currency, time banking allows those who may not have enough money to pay for services outright to get work done, share their own skills in return, and build community, Hodge says. A gardening member may offer to weed another member’s yard, which takes two hours, door to door. That member then records the time spent in an online database or smartphone app, and can use the time banked for Japanese lessons, for example.
On of the greatest challenges to the system happens when members skip logging their time.
“Some don’t log because they just become friends, so there can be a lot of shortfall in our numbers,” says Hodge. “People become more interested in giving than getting and don’t feel the need to take credit. We tend to be independent and don’t really take advantage of the things we could be getting.”
Financially supported by Common Ground through a United Way grant that ended last fall, Pontiac SUN TimeBank now receives funding from St. Joseph Mercy Oakland Hospital and occupies space at the Pontiac Regional Chamber.
“We are the activity in the office, and they give us free space in exchange for populating the office,” says Hodge, who is part of a ten-person team that includes interns from the University of Michigan, Wayne State University and Baker College, plus employees from the Urban Seniors Job Program of the Urban League.
Edith Carter is one such employee. She schedules classes, events, and trips and has helped the TimeBank form partnerships with other organizations. She says joining the TimeBank keeps her busy.
“I began with the TimeBank because I had a lot of time on my hands and it gave me a purpose and a reason to get up and get dressed and get out of the house. It also gave me a way to do something positive out in the community,” Carter says.
When Carter learned the local nonprofit Baldwin Center needed help to manage its garden space, she connected members to organize a program, leading to part-time employment for one member.
Businesses benefit, too
Among the Pontiac SUN TimeBank’s members are organizations, such as the Pontiac Regional Chamber, Lighthouse of Oakland County, and Common Ground.
“Organization membership is similar in terms of what is offered and what is needed. Lighthouse may need additional help with human resources or IT, so they connect with Common Ground who might have people on staff who can share that skill. And then Lighthouse may offer office space or meeting space to another organization that needs it,” explains Hodge, who also serves as executive director of the Michigan Alliance of TimeBanks.
In 2016, St. Joseph Mercy Oakland established a two-year pilot program with the Pontiac SUN TimeBank for neighbors to provide help for recently discharged patients, lessening the risk of social isolation and loneliness which can be predictors for depression and dementia, says Beverly Beltramo, chief mission office at St. Joseph Mercy Oakland.
“Someone to help walk the dog when they are recovering from an illness, to bring chicken soup, take them shopping for groceries, even to help change a light bulb or just make a friendly call to check-in and make sure they are doing ok,” Beltramo describes.
Those recovering can give back when they are able, preserving dignity and supporting the notion that we all have something of value to contribute.
“I believe this work matters. As we have become more and more isolated from each other, this taps into the heart of something important,” Beltramo says.
A tool for social change
Time banking brings together disparate groups, too.
“It’s an incredible tool to deal with any social challenge. Seniors and youth can learn how to get and give with each other and interact with each other. If you don’t have dollars, it doesn’t mean you don’t have the ability to get things done. You learn how to be creative with your time,” Hodge says.
For Johnnette Washington, time banking turned one simple request for help into a life-changing experience.
“She found her roots,” says Hodge. “She was touched in a way that she hadn’t even imagined. To find her father, from the help of another member, for her is huge.”