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.
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."
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."
She added, "As a community, we're becoming better stewards of our resources."
Time banking has practical value, as members seek services ranging from transportation to help around the house.
"Transportation is always big, like a ride to the doctor or a ride to the airport," Dugan said. "A lot of folks look for help around the house, from handyman services to cleaning out the basement."
One Columbia Community Exchange member is an information technology specialist, but enjoys trimming tree branches, Dugan said.
Dugan, too, is a time bank member and has received help in training her pet poodle. In exchange, Dugan's teenage son, who needed community service hours for school, helped the dog trainer clean out and reorganize her car.
"That was invaluable for her," Dugan said.
Patel, a retired federal worker, said the time banking program has allowed her to help others and get reciprocal help.
"I knew I didn't want another job, but I wanted to do something more than shelve books in a library," said Patel, who is putting her massage hobby to good use through the time bank.
For Garcia, 64, of Dorsey's Search, time banking is a chance to help people do projects that otherwise might "sit there for years."
And it's a chance for her to get some things she needs or wants. She recently got a dance lesson, and is considering looking for help in weeding her garden.
"It's a great program," she said. "I wish there were more people, so we could get more requests."