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Pitching in with hands and feet

Around Southern California, volunteers take on activities both practical and fun.

May 04, 2008|Deborah Schoch | Times Staff Writer

It's barely 11:30 a.m. on this bright May morning, and the South Carondelet Street septuagenarians are already out on the dance floor, boogieing with Carson High School teenagers to Latin-style '60s rock.

The beat is so contagious that the floor swiftly fills, some seniors foxtrotting, others dancing salsa and a few limber seniors doing the twist.

Gray-haired Phuong K. Truong, 73, dignified in glasses and a green dress shirt, dances ballroom style with Amber Ali, a 17-year-old high school senior in long silver earrings and a white "Big Sunday" T-shirt, who is more accustomed to belly dancing.

As he gracefully spins her under his arm, her dark hair goes flying and the crowd claps along. Feet tap faster. An elderly woman in black heels cha-cha-chas with a lanky youth in tennis shoes.

The Saturday dance at St. Barnabas Senior Center near MacArthur Park is among the first of an estimated 325 events across the region marking Big Sunday, which started 10 years ago in Los Angeles as a volunteer day and has since grown to a weekend event. Saturday and today thousands of volunteers from Santa Barbara to the Inland Empire are painting walls at schools, planting gardens, refurbishing shelters and swing-dancing.

"There are new people that have just taken projects on and run with them in ways I find jaw-dropping," founder David Levinson said Saturday.

This year, organizers have added two new programs: "Green Sunday," emphasizing environmentally minded projects, and "Singles Sunday," described as a kind of dating service for single volunteers.

Despite the "Big Sunday" name, about half of this weekend's projects got underway Saturday. On Venice Beach, two dozen volunteers worked with residents of Phoenix House to renovate the garden and lay a patio of bricks, concrete and tile at the drug treatment center. In North Hills, more volunteers installed flooring and painted walls at North Valley Caring Services, a local social service agency.

On South Carondelet Street, more than two dozen Carson High students and other volunteers spearheaded festivities at 100-year-old St. Barnabas, the city's oldest senior service agency. Nearly 100 seniors showed up, many coming early for the meals-on-wheels luncheon before the big draw, 2 1/2 hours of dancing, complete with a live disc jockey.

Salsa is typically the most popular dance form here, even though the center serves elderly residents from Chinatown, Koreatown and Filipinotown as well as the MacArthur Park Latino community, said Executive Director Martha Spinks.

More than two dozen Carson teenagers came to entertain the crowd, and some helped Lila Dominguez, 80, and other seniors make colorful paper flowers in a side room.

"I have no children, no family, so this makes me happy," said Dominguez, a stately woman in black, motioning at the young people making flowers at her table.

A round-faced young man was nudged toward the floor by an older volunteer.

"Grab a lady and have fun," he was told, and soon he was dancing with an older woman in an "Arkansas" sweat shirt.

One especially animated dancer, Leonardo de la Torre, 16, of Carson, said he loved to do the cumbia steps he learned from his parents, but he was still able to jitterbug with Esperanza Altamirano, 65, from Nicaragua. Minutes later, he and Lila Dominguez were out on the floor.

Douglas Lewis, 82, of MacArthur Park, swung his denim-clad hips, shuffled his feet and boogied with Jess Barnard, 27, of Hollywood.

He enjoyed dancing with younger people, he said: "They get to learn a little about the seniors."

Barnard and Adrian Koehler, 27 started working with Big Sunday through Mosaic, their evangelical Christian church, and they were vigorously moving their feet to the beat.

"I love the idea of dancing with seniors," said Barnard, nodding at an elderly man resting in a chair across the room.

"That man over there, when I was dancing with him, he said, 'I'd forgotten how much I love to dance.' "

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deborah.schoch@latimes.com

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Information about how to volunteer for today's Big Sunday events is available at www.bigsunday.org.

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