Far-flung strangers Chris Garcia, Arlene Patel and Carol Moore have one thing in common: They are members of a little-known time banking program, called the Columbia Community Exchange.

Patel, of Laurel, needed help cleaning out her grown children's old bedroom closets, before a church yard sale. She turned to http://www.columbiaassociation.org/timebanks, the website of the time bank — a kind of bartering program operated by the Columbia Association — and asked for assistance.

Enter Chris Garcia, of Columbia, who agreed to help. Garcia is a real estate agent, not a professional house cleaner, and she charged Patel no money.

"I paid her in time bank hours," Patel said.

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Moore, of Catonsville, wanted a massage. She turned to the time bank too, and Patel, an amateur massage therapist, offered to give her one.

"She paid me in hours," Patel said.

Columbia Community Exchange allows members to trade services directly, or trade services for hours, which can be stockpiled or "banked" on a member's personal account to pay other members for future services.

Membership is free, and you don't have to join CA to be a member of the Columbia Community Exchange, said Patricia Dugan, director of the 5-year-old time banking program.

Garcia has banked as many as four hours, but said for her, the goal is not to "rack up hours."

"It's to do an exchange, constantly using and earning hours," Garcia said.

"We operate an alternative economy. Our currency is time," Dugan explained. "It's kind of like a modern-day babysitting co-op or barn-raising. It's about how people can help others, not, 'What can you do for me?' "

She also said the program has a larger goal: creating "a more sustainable community."

The program is important in hard times, Dugan said. "Especially in this economy, time banking helps to redefine work and the value of work."

Membership has "exploded" since Dugan came on board in 2009, and has hit as much as 300, she said.

"It ebbs and flows with people's lives," she said. "It dropped to 200 and now it's back up to 275. We are growing again."

Worldwide growth

Time banking is growing in popularity regionally, nationally and even internationally, with some 300 such banks around the country and more in Europe. One of the newest is the nonprofit Baltimore Time Bank, five years in the planning. It started in earnest this summer and has two websites, http://letsbemore.timebanks.org and http://www.letsbmore.org.

There is also an established time bank program in Anne Arundel County.

"The time bank is a great way for nonprofits to encourage community," said Ian Schlakman, a co-founder of the Baltimore Time Bank. "We know that people in hard times are relying on neighbors. This is a way to do things a little more formally."

Dugan agreed, saying, "I think the economy has a little bit to do with it."