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Value of time

“Time is money” is one of those truths that rarely gets challenged.

Especially in these economically shaky times, some people are questioning whether the almighty dollar should be our society’s only currency. They’re seeking alternative ways to build an economy that also builds community.

“A lot people go to work, they come home, and they maybe have a close group of friends,” says Megan McDonough of Colrain, one of more than 500 members of Valley Time Trade, which began about four years ago. “But this is a way to broaden that network of who you’re having interactions with. The medium we’re used to is money, but with this network, you’re able to trade your time, too.”

McDonough, who does administration for a nonprofit organization in Northampton, said she learned about the time bank at a gathering in Colrain a few years back but didn’t get involved until she cut back work hours earlier this year and began looking for ways to fill free time.

“A lot of people have a job where we do one thing, and our culture encourages specialization,” says McDonough. “But the reality is that people usually have many skills. You can’t necessarily get a job doing all those things, but it’s a way to potentially share those skills with other people.”

The commuting woman offered to share rides, and also said she likes to work on art projects.

“Somebody took me up on that. They wanted to make a lamp shade,” she said. So McDonough took out a few library books about making lamp shades, found some Asian rice papers and onion-skin paper, and made a lamp shade for the person’s frame.

She’s also shared her computer skills and has also been in touch with someone about getting a chair massage.

By offering services on the Valley Time Trade website — where the hundreds of categories range from bartending to packing help and portrait photography to offering support to new mothers, child care and farming — members are “paying forward” into this community with the understanding that they can get repaid, over time, in services they want.

“We’re taught that debt is bad, and when we’re talking about money, I’d agree,” McDonough says. “But when you’re talking about goodwill and sharing, sometimes accepting a gift from another person is what makes the whole system work, as well as giving your time. People can have a positive or negative balance. The economy is a lot more than the exchange of money.”

Time trading is an example of the “sharing economy,” encouraged by sour economic conditions over the past five years as well as greater attention recently to building community resources, and it’s all facilitated by the Internet. Whether sharing living space, rides or equipment with a neighbor, signs of a more cooperative economy abound.

“There’s a caring economy with mothers taking care of kids and looking after your neighbors, maybe shoveling your neighbor’s walkway,” McDonough says. “Those are all transactions that occur between people. I think Valley Time Trade is really just a way to build off that. It might be everyday skills for some people that other people really value, like if you really like to cook.”

While strict bartering — exchanging a year’s worth of your chicken’s eggs, for example, for your neighbor’s prized weed whacker — may violate federal tax laws, Valley Time Trade is not tied to cash value, but is only based on the currency of time. And it’s recognized by the Internal Revenue Service as a friendly, informal favor between one member of a network of members rather than a contractual agreement.

“It’s all good will,” says Valley Time Trade spokeswoman Devorah Levy of Northampton, who like many members earns hours by performing various services for the organization. “That’s part of the difficulty for people in trying to understand what it is. It’s doing something nice for somebody else, paying it forward, and they’re helping another person. It all works out.”

What’s traded is almost always a service. One member may knit a scarf or bake a cake for another, but the recipient pays for materials or ingredients, so all that’s traded are hours.

About half the network’s members are in the Northampton area, with another concentration in Amherst and other Hampshire County towns, with a lesser number spread around Franklin County. About 50 members are clustered in Greenfield and Turners Falls.

“I would love to see more members in Franklin County,” says McDonough, who admitted that sometimes, distance gets in the way.

Susan Hackney of Bernardston agrees that having more Franklin County members would help avoid “travel issues” like trying to have carpentry done by someone from Amherst, 50 minutes away, and who lacked a car anyway.

That said, Hackney, who offers conflict-resolution coaching and training in nonviolent communication, calls time trade “an amazing resource. It opens up a whole other level of living, and you can participate in things you wouldn’t normally do because there’s an indirect exchange of hours. There are hundreds of offerings, and I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface.”

Valley Time Trade lists offerings from how to buy a guitar or how to use social media, to how to make sauerkraut. There are people offering use of their truck and trailer, offering to cut wood, to do data entry or painting.

One feature of the network’s new website is that anyone who needs a service that’s not already listed can send out a request. Chances are someone can do it.

Even though she’s only made use of her membership a couple of times, Hackney says, “What’s exciting to me is that it values every person. The underlying principle is that every person has skills, knowledge and abilities that are valuable.”

Leverett massage therapist and yoga instructor Nancy Paglia, who’s been a member for three or four years, says she’s used Valley Time Trade to have sewing done and to have her carpet cleaned, trading those services for stress-reducing massages, particularly on Mondays, a slow day for her business.

The wife of the man who repaired her chairs later paid to join one of her women’s yoga circles, but in general, she hasn’t found it to be a way to boost her business.

“I was just attracted to the idea of bartering services, not having to worry about money,” Paglia says. “I like the idea of an economy that doesn’t function around money.”

One of the most appealing things, she says, is that an hour of the services of an acupuncturist or doctor, for example, is seen as equal to that of someone watering someone else’s garden or pet sitting.

“It’s this idea that our time is all respected as being equal,” she says. “It seems like a really pure way of living, in a way, being able to not have to worry how much things cost.”

The network, which has regular orientation sessions in Northampton and Amherst — with more envisioned in Franklin County to attract members here — might sound like it would be rife with the possibilities of abuse. But that hasn’t been the case, says Levy.

“The kind of people who join ‘get it,’ or are comfortable with the altruistic aspect of it,” she says. “We emphasize the values behind it. It’s not just about getting something for yourself. It’s about creating community, helping other people, and getting to know people you’d otherwise never have met.”

On the Web:

www.valleytimetrade.wordpress.com/ www.yesmagazine.org/blogs/fixing-the-future/portland-maine-swapping-ditch-digging-for-legal-services

You can reach Richie Davis at rdavis@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, Ext. 269

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