In her small New England city, Heather Kralik is known as an “expert duster.” She will clean house for any of her neighbors and won’t charge a penny.
Elsewhere in town, a famed pianist who’s losing his eyesight offers free music lessons. Locals chop each other’s wood during the winter and tend their gardens in the spring. They share rides around town. Sometimes, strangers get together just to chat over a cup of coffee.
The goodwill in Montpelier, Vt., a quaint town where the population’s barely budged since 1910, is the result of a practice called “timebanking.” Here’s how it works: For every hour that someone spends helping others, he or she stores a credit at the time bank. Later, that credit can be redeemed for a service or donated to someone else. At its core, timebanking is both a bartering system and an alternative currency, in which everyone’s time carries the same value — whether teaching French or fixing pipes. In this section of the Green Mountain State, residents bank hours with the Onion River Exchange.
Using an online board, Montpelier residents offer their unique talents or request help. Carpenters repaired the rotting central beams in one woman’s unsafe home, a retiree who had a stroke trained himself to speak again by meeting with his neighbors and a young man arranged his entire wedding — from the invitations to the cake — through the exchange.
“There are so many reasons why people join: to save money, to meet people, to connect to the community or to support using the alternative economy,” Kralik, outreach coordinator of the Onion River Exchange, says.
Even though it encourages community service, the timebanking model differs from traditional volunteering. “It’s a network that focuses on reciprocity. If I give something, other members are giving as well. We’re not a charity,” Kralik explains.
Some of the most significant benefits can be seen in the elderly population. One 85-year-old woman in the Onion River Exchange has been racking up tons of hours now, so that when she needs help driving to a doctor’s appointment or picking up her groceries later on, she’ll have credits saved up. The time banks also give retirees a sense of purpose and companionship, which improves their physical and mental health, according to a study of a Pennsylvania time bank.
The concept of timebanking was thought up in 1980 by law professor Edgar Cahn at a time when “Ronald Reagan was withdrawing funding for social programs,” Cahn says. “I thought that if there was going to be no more of the old money to support communities, we should create a new one.” Originally called service credits, Cahn believed storing hours would incentivize volunteer work and, in the process, build stronger communities. The following year, the first time bank started in St. Louis. By 1995, a national organization, TimeBanks USA, was founded in Washington, D.C. to support development of the concept across the country. Today, there are approximately 400 registered time banks nationwide.
Montpelier’s time bank officially opened for business in April 2008, but it arose out of discussions years earlier when the town was setting ambitious goals to reach by 2050. At one of the many brainstorming groups, someone mentioned an idea they’d heard about in Portland, Maine, where residents were spending time (or “saving” it, you could say) in service to the community. Inspired by this example, the Vermonters organized the time bank, which covers a 30-mile radius of Central Vermonth around Montpelier. As of this week, 37,000 hours have been exchanged on nearly 12,400 projects.
Recently, Kralik accrued a few hours herself by helping an 80-year-old woman dust her overcrowded house. Taking a pause from the work, Kralik looked up and noticed that the elderly homeowner was beaming with happiness. “When I first heard about [time banking], I was looking forward to getting all these cool exchanges. It was more about what I was going to receive,” she recalls. “But the more I started exchanging, it was just this amazing epiphany. I was feeling really connected to a community that I had lived in for the last 30 years, connecting in a way that I’d never done before.”
Homepage photo: Andrew Burton/Getty Images