The worst slump since the Great Depression has killed careers and buried dreams, but it also has breathed life into parallel economies in Eugene and elsewhere.
EUGENE — The worst slump since the Great Depression has killed careers and buried dreams, but it also has breathed life into parallel economies in Eugene and elsewhere.
Here, the Emerald Valley Time Exchange is drawing an increasing membership of unemployed, underemployed and layoff-fearing people who are short on spending money but long on needs.
Members can offer their time and skill — doing anything from errand running to computer repair or baby-sitting — and receive a haircut, a resume writing consultation or any of dozens of other services offered by 57 other members of the exchange, free of charge.
It's a way to stretch a strained budget, but it also can bolster a sense of competence, worth and belonging.
"Suddenly, they're laid off and they've got all this time," said Indigo Ronlov, exchange founder, "and they're so excited and 'Hallelujah' they're not tied to a job and look at all the things they can give to this community."
Across the country, similar "time banks" are finding heightened demand for such person-to-person services.
TimeBanks USA, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit agency, offers a software nerve center that time banks can use. Demand for the software has doubled each year since 2006, CEO Christine Gray said. This year, she expects to ship more than 200.
TimeBanks USA counts 130 time banks in 44 states within its network, although organizers say many more are operating independently. And the growth is exponential right now. A July 2008 Los Angeles Times article featured a time bank started by an artist and a vintage clothing seller. The story seeded 15 new time banks in the sprawling city and its suburbs, Gray said.
Portland and Bend have fledgling operations. Roseburg is in the planning stages and has plans for a public launch in February.
In Lane County, the market of potential exchange participants is substantial with roughly 35,000 residents out of work or trying to keep their lives together on part-time hours, according to the state Employment Department.
The Emerald Valley Time Exchange, which has no public offices, took root in fall 2008, at or near the depth of the financial crisis. Organizers set a goal of 35 members in the first year of operation but gained 58 members in 11 months — a testament to the financial times, Ronlov said.
College towns are predisposed to experiments in alternative economies. The Whiteaker Neighborhood in the 1970s had a cash-free skills and tools exchange, said Aleta Miller, long-time local activist. From 1987 to 1995, Eugene dabbled in alternative currencies — Emerald Dollars, Cascadia Dollars — and drew as many as 220 participants, Miller said.
Two kinds of people are drawn to this type of program, Ronlov said. "It's people who have been living an alternative lifestyle. Eugene is ripe with that. This is one more avenue to do things alternatively.
"Then there's the people who don't have a job or their hours have been cut back. They're having a hard time and they see this as a way to get some needs met they would normally be paying for: health care, yard work. We have people out there who are amazing, awesome people who have so much to offer but no money."
Miller says parallel economies work best when there's cross-over, when they don't become the sole province of the alternative or hippie community. Some are founded in the center channel of the mainstream.
Time bank traders attend an orientation session where they're introduced to the concept and the Web site and pay an initiation fee. In Eugene it has been $24 for an individual, including $6 for a background check. Felony convictions disqualify one from membership.
The traders list several services they can offer — from a matrix of possibilities listed on the Web site or from an idea of their own.
South Eugene High School German teacher Kathy Saranpa — an early member of the local exchange — offered German tutoring, but she's found herself offering other skills in response to requests on the Web site.
She transcribed radio shows for one trader, for example, and cooked for another.
"Every month or so I'll cook him up a batch of chili, which he'll freeze," she said. "It's such a wonderful thing. I'm surprised not everybody is doing it."
The recipient of the service is responsible for crediting the giver with the hours spent by logging it on the exchange Web site.
The trades are not bartering, Ronlov said. For example, one member named Denise recently provided a gardening consultation to Ronlov. And Ronlov logged the hour in Denise's account.
"I may never do something for Denise. Never. Ever. There may never be anything she needs from me," Ronlov said. On the other hand, Ronlov, a graphic artist, may wrap presents for another trader.
"This isn't taxable because there's no monetary value placed on anything and there's no reciprocating between people," she said. "You may be a person who gives, gives, gives and never takes anything, ever. The IRS can't touch that."
The exchange asks traders to be pointedly honest about their level of skill and experience when offering services. The exchange doesn't guarantee the work, although the coordinator will try to help sort out any problems that arise.
Recipients understand that it's volunteer work so their expectations aren't as exacting, Ronlov said.
"We're just people offering neighborly services to people," she said. Some professionals, such as doctors, offer their services through time banks. However, the concept that a doctor's hour is worth the same as a laborer's hour in the exchange is too much for some people, Ronlov said.
Some unanticipated benefits have emerged at the older time banks.
Nonprofit organizations can join as a group and their volunteers can get credit for their work, Ronlov said.
Or a nonprofit agency could seek services from the bank. For instance, an orchestra may offer several two-hour concert tickets in exchange for two-hour increments of envelope stuffing.
Small businesses have built a client base by offering their services for exchange. Teenagers have built a work record and references that served them later on.
Saranpa has a lot more free time in the summer when school is out so she accumulated some hours, which she's free to use in the fall and winter when she's back on the job.
"I'm very, very busy. That's why it's great to have somebody come and wash windows or vacuum. I know if I need to, I can have somebody come over and help me with that."