Neighborhoods are making good use of their time

If everyone in Kalamazoo did one hour of work to another person and accepted one hour of work done for themselves how would the community change?

The tantalizing picture of such a community is one reason Rhonda Catt pursues a local time bank she calls K-NEx -- a name that reflects the connections being made by everyone who takes part.

A time bank is a way of giving and obtaining services without swapping money. It differs from bartering in that the person who performs a job typically will not have work done for them by the person for whom they worked.

Catt established the Kalamazoo’s first time bank in a pilot program in the Edison Neighborhood in 2011 and is working to bring it to the Vine Neighborhood next. She currrently is seeking funding to continue to bring more people into the program.

She introduces the concept at a neighborhood potluck where people share meals and ideas about what kinds of work they might be able to do for others.

Over the course of the get-together, people who initially did not believe they have much to offer end up feeling energized about the possibilities. Often a new respect for their own abilities emerges.

That’s because in the time bank each hour of work is of equal value, regardless of what the task is.

Giving someone a ride to the doctor, providing language translation services, preparing a meal, babysitting children or watching an elder, check-in calls to ascertain a person is doing well, tutoring, picking up groceries -- the type of services provided are as varied as the imagination of those providing them.

Those who have physical disabilities usually can find services they can provide that puts them on an equal footing with those who do not have disabilities.

The hours worked are logged in computer records kept by Catt through special software developed for such enterprises.

Participants in the time bank first go through an orientation. They also must provide two references. For safety reasons, they are asked if they have a criminal background. That would not disqualify them from participating but their participation in certain work might be limited -- a person convicted of embezzlement would not be doing handle money for another person, for example.

In its first year in the Edison Neighborhood, K-Nex logged 400 hours of work exchanged by time bank members. And that was with just 20 members. Some hours of work were banked on community work days that Catt organized. But a lot of work also was instigated by individuals.

For those who worry that such a system takes the philanthropic spirit out of doing work in the community, time bank supporters say it is easy to do work but often difficult to admit you need someone to help you with a specific task.

Catt says as a society, Americans have become reluctant to admit it when they are no longer self-sufficient. Where once people relied on the community, we have moved away from that. The time bank provides a way for people to get help by giving it.

The community building aspects of the program also are a hugely important part of the program for her. She says as a resident of the Edison Neighborhood she has watched in dismay as people close in the porches on their 100 year old houses.

"People are turning their backs on the community where people used to live their lives together," Catt says. "We have more and more solitary living. People have forgotten how to ask for help."

What the time bank does is create "a safe place for people to ask for and offer help," Catt says. Connections are reestablished as community members help one another.

Time banks are well established in Europe, although they are less well-known in the United States. The time bank has its roots in England, where it was developed about 30 years ago by Edgar S. Cahn. A lawyer dedicated to fighting for social justice, Chan suffered a heart attack that curtailed his energy and he did not want to spend the rest of his life feeling he could no longer contribute so the idea for the time bank came about. Chahn takes the idea further. He believes the time bank concept and related principles can change the dynamic between getting and receiving all kinds of services. Those who once were recipients of social welfare services become agents of change that Cahn called co-producers.

Catt says she learned of the program through the Michigan Alliance of Time Banks. She initially became interested in it as she explored programs that would be of benefit to the Edison neighborhood, the city’s largest and most diverse.

"I was looking for something that would really draw out the resources of the people," Catt says. She was hooked by the description of the program as one that valued all work equally -- dog walking could be exchanged for income tax accounting.

Since then she has learned of the many ways the program can develop -- opportunities for community service by nonviolent juvenile offenders is just one that she is exploring. A time store, where people trade in their hours of work for physical items is another possibility she would like to pursue. Partnerships with municipal organizations also could be in the works.

All it takes is time.

Kathy Jennings is the Editor of Southwest Michigan’s Second Wave. She is a freelance writer and editor.

Photos by Erik Holladay.

Rhonda Catt trades time installing insulation for the construction of the time bank website.

Rhonda Catt is the orginizer of K-NEx, a local time bank.

Rosie Kae traded her skills as a web designer for the time bank.

Sonya, left, and Joe Brower are banking their time given by babysitting pets for future use when they go on vacation.

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