Neighbors can swap skills through Sterling Heights-based time bank

By: Cortney Casey | Sterling Heights Sentry | Published April 20, 2011

STERLING HEIGHTS — Growing up with parents who lived through the Great Depression, Janet Johnson has, as she phrased it, “skills for coping with an economy that isn’t full of a lot of dollar bills.”

The Sterling Heights resident knows how to garden, how to can her own food, how to string up a clothesline.

But there also are fields she’s no expert in — a prime example of why she’s determined to launch Urban Pioneers, a time bank in Sterling Heights and surrounding communities.

“What it says is, we have a big pot,” explained Janet Johnson. “And if I do you a favor and it takes me an hour, I get a time hour in my pot.”

That hour can then be “spent” with another member of the time bank for performing another task, she said. It’s all tracked via software that lists participants’ needs, as well as their offers in their areas of expertise.

“You match unmet needs with untapped skills,” said Janet Johnson.

As the name suggests, time banks value all skills with a common currency: time. Whether it’s rewiring a circuit, baby-sitting, mentoring or providing transportation, all tasks are weighted based on length, not perceived complexity, she said.

“In a market economy, things are based on supply and demand,” she said. “Things that are in short supply tend to cost more. That skews the value of people. It makes people who raise children be less valued because there are more of them. Children are less valued, the elderly are less valued, when in fact, in a community, these people are very, very valuable people. Time banking kind of levels that playing field back out.”

For instance, a child who cannot conceivably work could still keep a homebound senior citizen company, while that senior, unable to leave the house, could serve as a mentor.

“They’re saying, ‘OK, you’re a person with talent,’” said Janet Johnson. “Let’s isolate your talents, identify your talents.”

It was a principle that appealed to fellow Sterling Heights resident Lynn Johnson, who met Janet Johnson — no relation — via the Yahoo! group Macomb County Café, a message board for local residents.

With her kids now grown, Lynn Johnson, a longtime volunteer for her children’s school and Scout endeavors, was searching for a new way to assist the community. When she spotted Janet Johnson’s online post about Urban Pioneers, Lynn Johnson was intrigued.

“I could see the value in it for myself,” she said, “and I figured, if there’s value in it for me … there’s probably value in it for a lot of people, especially in this economy.”

Janet Johnson herself became enamored with the concept — reportedly active in more than 20 countries — after reading about it in a magazine.

Googling for local options, she found the Lathrup Village Time Bank online and quickly signed up, only to learn that the group was exclusively for Lathrup residents.

Undeterred, she learned more by attending the Lathrup time bank’s functions and underwent a year’s worth of training to become a leader/facilitator for a Sterling Heights-area time bank.

Lynn Johnson has since completed the same training, and the pair has been making the rounds locally, speaking at Sterling Heights City Council meetings, talking to churches and service organizations, and distributing fliers to businesses.

They hope Macomb County residents interested in time banking will attend a May 7 MI Alliance of Time Banks meeting in Southfield, where they can get more information on how it works.

Lynn Johnson noted that there’s a $25 annual fee for joining Urban Pioneers, used to offset overhead costs, including licensing for the tracking software. The goal is to ultimately enlist about 100-150 people, said Janet Johnson.

“I want people to come in, get experience, get their feet wet, get mentored, get trained, get taught, (become) able to do it and then bring it to their own neighborhood,” she said. “I think that over time, what will occur is, people will develop sub-networks and spinoff time banks.”

Kim Hodge, the founder of the Lathrup Village Time Bank, shares a similar outlook. She launched the statewide MI Alliance of Time Banks two years ago to supply networking and training resources in hopes of sparking other local time banks.

“Our vision and our goal was to get as many time banks started as we could that would connect to each other eventually,” she said, noting that nationally, those with paid staffs “to keep it going and make it thrive” have the best long-term success rates.

Initially started as a way for Hodge to meet her neighbors, the Lathrup Village group now is the largest in the state, with 120 members, she said; a handful of other Michigan time banks have 25-40 participants.

“The concept is getting more known in the state,” said Hodge. “It’s an idea whose time has come. It’s really happening all over the country and all over the world.”

The MI Alliance of Time Bank meeting is set for 11 a.m.-1 p.m. May 7 at Peace Lutheran Church, 17029 W. 13 Mile, between Southfield and Greenfield roads, in Southfield.

For more information on the Urban Pioneers, call Janet Johnson at (586) 604-6974, email urban_pioneers@yahoo.com or look up “Urban Pioneers” on Facebook.com. For more information on the MI Alliance of Time Banks, visit www.mitimebanks.org.