CAMBRIDGE, Mass. In Betsy Leondar-Wright’s kitchen, it smells good. She is packing up grilled tilapia with sesame seeds, quinoa and spinach that she is delivering to a woman she barely knows in Cambridge.
“Usually I just cook for Jan,” Leondar-Wright says. “She needs a steady cook and I need steady time trade hours so it’s a very, very good arrangement.”
On the receiving end is Jan Innes, in Cambridge, who says the transaction has “been a tremendous boon” for her. Innes has some inhibiting health issues but, she says, “there’s lots of things I can do for other people and I can get the things I need from time trade.”
Innes needs cooked meals and rides to appointments. But what Innes has to offer — sewing, primarily — Leondar-Wright doesn’t need.
Instead, Leondar-Wright says she has “saved so much time and tedium with all these great laid-off high-tech workers” who have helped her with data entry and analysis for her sociology dissertation.
While these high-tech workers probably prefer a paying job, they too turn to time banking to get the things they need for trade. The system is Time Trade Circle, a concept born more than 20 years ago and is now in 25 states.
The Greater Boston iteration started four years ago with seven people, but its membership has grown significantly. Membership in the Cambridge circle has doubled since the fall — to more than 500 people — and time banks also exist in Rockport, Lynn and western Massachusetts.
Cambridge Time Trade Circle founder Katherine Ellin says rising unemployment has swelled enrollment.
“People that are losing jobs feel they have more time than money,” Ellin says. “They want to do something that feels worthwhile. For those people I think it’s sort of a complementary economy.”
While bartering is a one-to-one exchange, time banking is a Web site in which members log hours and choose from hundreds of services. Whether the desired service is computer help, child care or hedge trimming, each hour is valued the same.
At a recent orientation meeting for new time traders in Jamaica Plain, about 50 people showed up, all with individual services to offer.
One had a car and would run errands or drive someone to the airport. Another could cook Mexican food or teach Spanish. A third could help with fundraising and social networking.
After the orientation, everyone joined in a potluck dinner, which was like the crowd — primarily vegetarian, organic and homemade. Looking around, Carol Moses, the orientation and outreach coordinator, says the Time Trade Circle attracts community-minded people.
“It’s really an interesting spread,” Moses says. “We see some very young people who are in green organizations or people who decide not to use cars. We also have retired people. We recently have seen people who are unemployed. On our form we ask, ‘How did you hear about the time bank?’ and somebody recently said, ‘My job counselor referred me.’ ”
New member Renee Toll-DuBois, from Cambridge, is unemployed and plans to use the exchange to get things done for free. But she also likes that this bank builds a community.
“Sitting in here and hearing people wanting to share, ‘Oh, I speak German,’ ‘Oh, world music sounds great.’ ‘Oh, tour guide, oh food!’ And it got very exciting in here,” Toll-DuBois says.
As the economy improves, time traders say they don’t expect to cash out of the time bank. The online community they have discovered is like moving into a neighborhood where it is socially acceptable to ask for help because you are contributing as well.