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Volunteers pour their hearts into making valentines for those in need

You could try to do it with speeches. You could try to do it with laws.

Or you could go grass-roots with glue sticks, markers and red hearts.

How do you bring the people of a big city together? Big Sunday prefers the making-friends-while-making-valentines approach.

The nonprofit, which aims to build community through service, is best known for one big weekend a year when thousands of volunteers fan out to hundreds of projects.

But how to keep all those people feeling part of something bigger than themselves all year long? Big Sunday offers ways to join in.

It curates a list to link people who have items to give away with nonprofits who might have a need for them. It posts a calendar full of opportunities — to tutor, plant, distribute food to the homeless. Its End of the Month Club collects food for those living on the edge. It is planning a Baby Day to help disadvantaged infants.

On Sunday evening, the stated aim was to beam out love to the lonely: shut-ins, those in shelters and hospitals, veterans, senior citizens in homes.

Come to our headquarters, Big Sunday said. Have a free dinner and cake. Play bingo. Win prizes.

While you're there, pull up a chair. Make a valentine for someone who could use one. Fill some gift bags with candy. Decorate a picture frame. Say hello to the person sitting next to you.

Kiyomi Mizukami, 35, read about the Valentine-Making, Bingo-Playing Community Dinner on a site called Volunteer Match when she was searching for ways to do good. And even though it was Sunday evening, prime time for hunkering down at home, she managed to convince three friends to come along.

When they got there, they weren't sure they had the right place. Such a crowd was gathered out front on the Melrose Avenue sidewalk, they thought maybe people were waiting to get into a club.

Another first-timer, Rosie Pearson, 56, drove from El Monte, expecting something earnest and low-key. What she found floored her, starting with the warm welcome she received at the door from a guy who introduced himself as Dave.

She and her friends made their way into a large room that soon filled with several hundred people: very young children thumping up and down the stairs to the balcony, extended families, whole crews wearing matching T-shirts (Disney VoluntEARS, Israeli American Council).

Pearson sat at a long table with red hearts on its tablecloth, underneath a bouquet of heart-shaped, red and pink balloons. Reaching into a basket of markers, she filled in a heart on an otherwise blank card with blue flowers springing up between blades of green grass. In pink marker, she wrote: "You have the eye of the tiger, the feet of the roadrunner, the wings of an eagle and the heart of a dove." As a finishing embellishment, she added a couple of heart-shaped stickers.

Then the Dave who had welcomed her stood up to speak. He was David Levinson, Big Sunday's founder and executive director.

The goal, he told the group, was to make at least 2,014 cards, with a break for dinner at 5 p.m. and bingo at 5:45.

"Welcome. Grab a seat anywhere you want," he said as more people walked in.

Upstairs and downstairs, the space was buzzing.

In the balcony, child actors from the Actors Fund's Looking Ahead program had taken over the floor of Levinson's office to stuff gift bags. A few yards away, young people from a court-ordered recovery program at Phoenix House were decorating frames near kids from the Boys & Girls Club of East L.A.

Downstairs, students from St. Paul's School in West Adams handed out cups of lemonade to residents of Rosewood Gardens Senior Apartments in East Hollywood.

"If you look around at the different ethnicities and the different ages here, it's like there's no boundaries. It's like love without any condition. Unconditional love is what I see here," Pearson said.

Matthew Schoepf, a 26-year-old visual effects designer, came as part of the Disney group and passed out glue sticks and markers before ending up in the kitchen, slicing sheet cake.

When all the cake had been served up, he leaned against the doorway, looking out at tables still crowded with people.

It was the first time, he said, that he had ever volunteered on his own. He'd been nervous.

But he'd wanted "to give something to someone else without expecting something back." And he'd liked the idea of the valentines.

Asked if he had a valentine of his own, Schoepf shook his head.

Then he surveyed the scene, smiled and said, "But I have many now."

nita.lelyveld@latimes.com

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Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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