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That math lesson will cost you 20 time dollars, please


Doris Feldman, a member of the Visiting Nurse Service of New York Time Bank, earned time dollars by giving Michelle Gamble, 11, a painting lesson. (Courtesy VNS)

Julia Reyes’ son struggles in math, but she can’t afford a tutor. Luckily, her bank is there to help. She’ll have to pay the bank back, but since it accepts good deeds as payment, Reyes doesn’t mind at all.

Reyes lives in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan and belongs to the Visiting Nurse Service of New York Time Bank, where one hour of service of any kind earns a member one “time dollar” to spend on services provided by other members, or on discounts in neighborhood restaurants and stores.

“I feel lucky to have the opportunity to give back to my community,” said Reyes. “What do I get in return? Happiness and joy. Every member is doing this happily and from the heart.”

As the global economy tanks, time banks (which do not offer traditional services such as checking and savings accounts) are popping up across the country. There are 95 banks in 32 states, according to Time Banks USA. Roughly half of them sprouted up this past year. The nonprofit organization has received 70 requests for time bank start-up kits since last September.

“There has been a lot of interest in time banks in Ohio recently because of the job market there,” said Jen Moore of Time Banks U.S.A.

Tony Budak, who runs a time bank in Youngstown, Ohio, is advising five people who want to start up time banks in and around the Cleveland area. He also expects to see a spike in membership at his Youngstown time bank, especially after the recent layoffs at a General Motors plant in neighboring Lordstown.

“People are motivated by the insecurity of not having a job and they’re wondering what they should do next,” said Budak. “They look for comfort, they look for support systems, they look for assets in other people, and time banks are there for them.”

Although Banji Panchumarti didn’t lose his job as a computer programmer, he says he saw the signs of foreclosure up and down his block in Medina, a suburb of Cleveland. The economy, however, wasn’t his main motivation for starting up a time bank last month. He says he simply wants to build community.

“I really want people to help each other,” said Panchumarti, who plans to earn his time dollars by repairing members’ computers.

Last month, Reyes logged 10 hours at the Visiting Nurses time bank in New York by planning the time bank's monthly potluck, providing companionship for an elderly member, and giving dance lessons—she is expert in merengue, salsa and reggae, as well as a popular Dominican dance called bachata.

Reyes cashed in her time dollars for math tutoring for her son Carlos, repair work on her computer and discounts on photo development at a local shop.

“There is no way I could afford these services on my salary,” said Reyes, a single mother of two children. “I don’t know what I would do without the time bank.”

Time banking is the creation of Edgar S. Cahn, a former speechwriter for Robert Kennedy and social-justice lawyer who founded the Antioch School of Law. The idea came to him after he suffered a severe heart attack in 1980, at the age of 46.

Cahn felt helpless lying in a hospital bed, unable to do anything in return for the people who were helping him to recover. He thought people who had long been the recipients of aid might feel the same helplessness, so he devised a plan to create a social service system in which people have the opportunity to give as well as receive.

Time banking is a throwback to the days when people walked across the hall or street to talk to neighbors, rather than simply catching up on Facebook and other online social networking sites. Time banking is about creating real-life social networks based on thrift, yes, but also mutual friendship.

“I lived in a close-knit community in the countryside in Puerto Rico where everybody knew each other,” said Omayra Torres, a coordinator for the Visiting Nurse Time Bank in New York City and a member.

Torres said that moving to New York City was tough because people keep to themselves, and she wasn’t sure if a time bank could work here.

“But when I started exchanging services and saw the results, I said, ‘Okay, it is possible in New York City to enlarge your social network and meet new people and become close, like family,’” she said.

Doris Feldman, an 82-year-old member of the Visiting Nurse Time Bank in New York City, recently helped a Spanish-speaking member practice her English. She compared the experience of participating in a time bank to the spokes of a wheel.

“Each good deed extends out and goes round and round,” Feldman said. “I helped a lady with her English and she was just as delighted as could be. But she didn’t have to do anything for me.

“That’s not what it’s about. She provided her services to someone else in the time bank who needed her skills.”

Time banks differ from bartering, where two people exchange services of equal value. “It’s not ‘you do something for me so I gotta do something for you,’” Feldman said. “I was always taught to help without the thought of remuneration.”

Reyes hopes that her son is learning the same lessons through his work at the time bank. The youngest time bank member, her son Carlos, 8, dishes out the flan and other desserts at the group’s monthly meetings and makes phone calls to members reminding them about upcoming meetings.

He also said he “takes old ladies to fun places.” The most recent fun place he visited was the Museum of Modern Art with his mother and two other adult members. The museum pass was donated to the time bank by a member.

So what has Carlos learned from his work at the time bank? “I learned that it’s important to help people,” Carlos said. “It gives me a happy feeling.”