If you’ve lost your health insurance but have a few hours to spare, and you’re lucky enough to live in Portland, Maine, your options may not be as limited as they first appear. Just identify a skill that might be of use to others—providing tennis lessons, say, or installing electrical wiring—and you can trade an hour of your services for an hour of someone else’s. One of the most popular offerings: health care services.
It works like this: After you volunteer your services, the time you spent is "banked" for you in the Hour Exchange Portland’s time bank. Founded in 1997, there are now over 900 members and both individual and organizational partnerships. People trade just about everything they can think of: pet grooming, photography, acupuncture, web design. And as the U.S. economy has shrunk, interest in the program over the past few years has grown at a rapid rate.
"We’ve seen a 50% increase in our membership in the past few years," says HEP coordinator Orion Breen. "It’s both people who join because they want to give back to the community, and people who join because they have things they need or want that’s just not in their budget right now."
The nonprofit was founded by a physician in Maine who hoped that his fledgling organization might prompt members of his community to start taking care of each other. And although it wasn’t the very first, HEP is one of the largest and most successful time banks in the U.S. and has served as a role model for dozens more across the country. "We all will have what we need if we use what we have, and what we have is each other," Breen says. "There are 50,000 people in Maine who are unemployed, but if you look around the community there’s no shortage of work to be done."
The best way to get people to help is to reward them for doing it, he says. Beyond that, those people who bank time and use it for appointments with doctors and nutritionists and other health care providers have been more likely to take the resulting advice seriously. "Lots of doctors do pro bono work, and they’ve found that if they give care away it’s not as valuable and you don’t have as good an outcome as you do when people feel like they’re earning the care in some way. So if they mow lawns for an hour and then you tell them they have to improve their diet, they’re more likely to do it because they’re invested in their own care," Breen says.
Since the development of HEP, the time-banking movement has exploded and the organization has collaborated with Washington, D.C.-based TimeBanks USA to build software and organizational tools to help cities and towns around the country develop and incubate their own regional banks. There are hundreds of time banks around the world; to find one near you, check out hOurworld or the community pages of TimeBanks USA. If you can’t find one, start your own.