The premise of TimeBanks is that everyone has something to contribute to their community—everyone, regardless of their physical abilities, age or gender.
“We all need each other and to feel that we matter and that just being alive is important to others,” said Edgar Cahn, PhD, founder of TimeBanks. “There is a universal need to feel like you can make a difference in the world.”
TimeBanks are essentially an organized way to build on the “pay it forward” concept. TimeBanks members volunteer and earn credits of TimeBanks hours so that they are part of giving and receiving as a way to further strengthen supportive networks and communities.
In other words, a reciprocal relationship is created through mutually beneficial volunteering so it is not system of a giver and a receiver, but people both giving and receiving. Dr. Cahn recalled meeting a woman who was a TimeBanks member. The woman, who was in a wheelchair and using oxygen to breathe. “She pointed to this athletic-looking guy and told me, ‘I’m helping him to do his job. He can’t do his job without me.’,” he said. “So I asked the guy, ‘How does she help you do your job?’ It turns out the guy was an Iraq war vet who came back with PTSD and the only job he could find was training seeing eye dogs, but the dogs had to be trained to be around someone in a wheelchair.”
Another example was a man who was a paraplegic, but capable of playing chess with seven students simultaneously—and winning. “It was felt he was a great mentor to these kids,” Dr. Cahn said.
The idea that there are no “throwaway people” in any society is what sparked the creation of TimeBanks in 1980 and now has branches worldwide. After a major heart attack, Dr. Cahn was told he would only have about two functional hours per day.
“I thought, if that’s all I’ve got, I want to be useful and I don’t want to be a ‘throwaway person’,” he said. Although today, Dr. Cahn works eight to 14 hours a day, seven days a week and feels incredibly useful, at the time when he was researching volunteering options he saw people depleted by just being givers.
“Volunteers are also people with needs and problems,” he said. “I’ve seen situations with people who have devoted their life to helping others and then they become invisible when their service ends. I’ve seen volunteering that does not necessarily provide an opportunity for people to be as creative as they can be. Volunteers have become the labor force for non-profits, but that doesn’t mean they are honored for the kinds of leadership they are capable of in their lives.”
Not only did Dr. Cahn have a vision, he wanted volunteers to be enabled to fulfill their own dreams. “We define people by their problems, not their capabilities and that’s not working,” he said. “Instead people should be defined by what they can contribute.”
The majority of TimeBanks members are women over the age of 60, but Dr. Cahn said there are more and more men participating. “I think they like to feel that they are actually earning something,” he said of the increase in male membership.
Dr. Cahn said that future of TimeBanking is in helping drive down medical costs by reducing hospital readmissions as volunteers help others get to follow-up doctor appointments, assist with enrollment in the Affordable Care Act, and provide help with activities of daily living. “Sometimes people are not literate or they do not want to go into a government office to learn about the array of social programs available to them,” he said.
In addition, a large aging population will require a stronger support network. “Most people don’t acknowledge they are aging, but they do have aging parents,” he said. “As kids move away and as people age, there is a need to rebuild a new kind of extended family and that is going to be the most critical role that TimeBanks play in societies.”
To learn more about starting a TimeBank or joining one in your area, go to www.timebanks.org.